The Art of Bookstores: Thoughts and Suggestions on visiting The School of Life

Alain De Botton is one of my favourite writers and thinkers. I’ve read 4 of his books now: The Art of Travel, The News, The Architecture of Happiness and perhaps my favourite Religion for Atheists. I’m also subscribed to his YouTube channel, The School of Life. He’s put forward interesting critiques of often unquestioned modern values such as romanticism and relativism. His ideas aren’t always perfect, they can have an infuriatingly middle-ground feel, but they’re always thought provoking and put forward compassionately. Also, he has an adorably awkward smile, and a voice like the flutter of angel’s wings.

So naturally when I was in London a few weeks ago, I was excited to visit The School of Life store. It wasn’t what I expected. My first disappointment with it was that it didn’t open until 11am. But, it’s also on Marchmont Street a few doors down from the famous Gay’s the Word bookstore, which film buffs might know is the one featured in the film Pride. It was pretty awesome, I bought Peter Ackroyd’s book on the queer history of London, and discovered many more books to add to my Goodreads.

One of the first things I noticed when I got into The School of Life store was how modern and simple it was. This in itself is not a fault, but it’s noteworthy because De Botton has criticised this exact style of design when talking about the Villa Savoye. It’s also a style that is in strong contrast with the buildings more traditional surroundings, this is another thing he has explicitly criticised, claiming that buildings need to balance individuality with respect for surrounding styles.

I do think this modernist style does fit with some of the objects sold there, such as the pottery that’s focused on the qualities of simplicity as well as fitting into this sanitised museum-like feel. But I was more interested in the books, and the store really wasn’t designed for them. Bookstores often seem to suit a more old-fashioned feel, perhaps because books are increasingly an old-fashioned thing. Or maybe because they’re the accumulated knowledge of the past, this is particularly true of De Botton’s books which deliberately repackage the ideas of philosophers and writers to use in day to day life.

In contrast to Gay’s the Word, there weren’t enough books to search through in the School of Life. It prevented me making new discoveries in the same way. In fact, there wasn’t even a full collection of Alain De Botton’s own books, and I already owned all the ones there. This was particularly disappointing as De Botton had signed several of the books, but I couldn’t justify to myself buying one I already owned.

All the books there that weren’t written by De Botton I had already seen on The School of Life’s online store. The search, the possibility of finding something new, something you might not find through algorithms and google searches is perhaps the most compelling part of physically visiting a bookstore in modern times. The internet is good at showing us what it thinks we like, or what we ask for, in this way bookstores are far better at exposing us to new ideas. Physically handling and flicking through books piques people’s curiosity in a way you cannot online. So far as I can tell De Botton’s entire career has been dedicated to exposing his audience to new ideas, but in the name of keeping his shop simple he has missed an important opportunity to do this.

In the off chance De Botton ever reads this my advice to him is to tear out the small shelves in the corner that currently contain his books, and replace it with a larger bookshelf that still matches the decorating scheme. Then fill it with books introducing customers to many of the ideas he draws on in his books. Below is a link to a list of books De Botton has previously recommended that could probably quite easily fill a decent sized bookshelf:


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