25 August 2022

Waterstones opens a new
chapter in Lichfield and
celebrates Samuel Johnson

The new Waterstones bookshop in Lichfield pays homage to Samuel Johnson (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

James Boswell recalls how Samuel Johnson advised him one day ‘to have as many books about me as I could; that I might read upon any subject upon which I had a desire for instruction at the time.’

For many years now, I have mourned the loss of the Staffs Bookshop, which had been trading in second-hand books in Lichfield for over 65 years. Gone too are the new and second-hand book sections in the former Cathedral Shop in the Cathedral Close.

Lichfield is well-served by the antiquarian bookshelves in the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum on the corner of Market Street and Breadmarket Street, opposite the Market Square, and there is a good Oxfam second-hand bookshop in in Market Street.

But Lichfield was without a good bookshop for far too long until Waterstones opened a new shop is opening in Lichfield this summer.

After taking part in the Lichfield Peace Walk as far as Farewell, earlier this week, I took my first opportunity to visit the new Waterstones in Lichfield, which opened in May in the former Dorothy Perkins unit on Market Street.

A display of Penelope Lively’s ‘The Road to Lichfield’ in (1977) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

It is so appropriate that the windows include a display of Penelope Lively’s The Road to Lichfield (1977), her first adult novel which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

As Waterstone’s was opening, Luke Taylor, the company’s retail director, said: ‘We are delighted to confirm that Waterstones will be opening a bookshop in Lichfield. We have long hoped to open a shop in this historic and popular city and have now found a great location for our bookshop.’

The unit had been empty since the closure of all Dorothy Perkins sites across Britain last year. Waterstones officially opened its Lichfield branch at 35 Market Street on 20 May.

David Hemming of Burley Browne who undertook the negotiations with Waterstones said there had been a huge amount of interest in the property. ‘Not surprisingly, we had several other good quality companies interested, including coffee shops, and restaurant operators. However, because it is such an important unit in the city centre, our client wanted to make sure we had the right sort of occupant that suited the location.’

He added: ‘Waterstones ticked all the boxes and fits in really well with Lichfield’s strong mix of independent shops and national chains. The restaurant and leisure market is also strong. It was that variety that Waterstones really liked.’

Of course, there is no shortage of coffee shops, restaurants or charity shops in Lichfield. But the city badly needed a good bookshop for far too long.

Adding to the literary associations with Lichfield, the shop is immediately opposite the Samuel Johnson Birthplace on Market Place and close to the Library in Old Saint Mary’s, making it a natural destination for all readers.

Waterstones in Lichfield has a full display of local history books by local writers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The shop is decorated throughout with a variety of apt quotations from Samuel Johnson in each section. I was particularly delighted to find a full display of local history books by local writers, including books by my friends Kate Gomez and Joss Musgrove Knibb, former editior of CityLife In Lichfield, and books on Samuel Johnson and Erasmus and Charles Darwin.

Already, the new Waterstones has had a number of book signings and readings. Ian Moore was there yesterday (24 August) signing his book Death and Fromage, and in June there was a lunchtime book signing with the Revd Richard Coles for his new book, Murder Before Evensong.

Waterstones was established 40 years ago by Tim Waterstone in 1982 and is now part of the British cultural landscape, employing over 3,000 booksellers across more than 280 bookshops.

As Britain’s last surviving national bookshop chain, it has fought off the perceived threat of e-readers and online competition to begin a programme of active expansion.

Coffee with an old friend in the Coffee House on Breadmarket Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Later, I bumped into an old friend and we decided to have coffee in the Coffee House on Breadmarket Street, sitting in the widow and enjoying life passing by on the streets of Lichfield.

The Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum next door is covered in scaffolding as restoration work continues. But part of the screen on the scaffolding close to the Coffee House and Boomers displays a poem on scaffolding by Seamus Heaney that is popular at many weddings:

Masons, when they start upon a building,
Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,
Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.

And yet all this comes down when the job’s done Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.

So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me

Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall
Confident that we have built our wall.

Seamus Heaney celebrated on the scaffolding between the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum and the Coffee House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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