Smoke wouldn’t exist today if Malcolm Hopkins, who was in charge of periodicals at Borders’ Oxford Street store when we began, hadn’t thought the magazine – and dozens like it – worth supporting. Whenever a new issue came out, we’d take him 350 copies on the 159 bus, and he’d position them subversively among the Grazias and Worlds of Dogs. But, when we breezed in with issue #10, we found no Hopkins, just a surly goth skulking in Esoterica. “He’s gone,” she said. “Gone?” we said. “Why?” “Dunno. Probably didn’t like the uniform.” Half of issue #10 came back as returns. Or the covers did.
Borders wasn’t perfect – in fact, some of its US former parent firm’s employment practices were downright evil. But, without any tradition of independent non-second hand book retailing in this part of south-east London (the nearest independent that I know of is Sydenham’s Kirkdale Bookshop), it’s been the chains or nothing.
So Books Etc in Canary Wharf snagged me very early on, when the Wharf’s shopping centre was a ghost town at weekends, by giving me their poster for the film version of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting for nothing when I asked if they had any for sale. So I stuck with them.
And while Books Etc and Borders were stocking small-scale magazines like Smoke, giving them a leg up and valuable shelf-space. I personally discovered that Waterstones couldn’t care less when I strolled into their Trafalgar Square branch one evening and asked if they stocked it. “We don’t sell magazines,” murmured a surly bloke behind the counter, oblivious to the pile of Time Outs under his nose. I gave Waterstones a swerve for years after, and still try to avoid it.
But the writing was on the wall when Waterstones took over the two Canary Wharf branches of Books Etc a year or so ago, not so long after it’d taken over Ottakar’s in Greenwich, meaning I’ve no choice in local bookshops any more. The closure of the flagship Oxford Street Borders this summer indicated that the game was up. At least a resurgent Foyles is keeping some kind of quirky bookselling going in London. Despite the sins of its US parent, Borders was one American import to London that actually will be missed.