House of Books & Friends is no ordinary bookshop. Its mission is stated plainly and boldly on its website: to combat loneliness, one book at a time.
We went to have a look. The shop is located on the ground floor of a Grade II listed building, originally built in 1871 to house Manchester’s Reform Club. Membership numbers plummeted in the mid-20th century so it merged with the Engineers’ Club in 1967 and even allowed women to become members in 1980. But it was too late. It finally closed its doors in 1988.
Those gentlemen certainly knew how to create a great place. The building is bright and airy with plenty of comfortable chairs and elevated views out on to the street.
Here’s a quick bit of literary history. The Net Book Agreement, which prevented anyone selling new books at below the publisher’s recommended retail price, ended in 1990. When that barrier came down, it opened the bookselling doors to American book chains, supermarkets, Amazon and other online merchants. As a result, it priced out all the lovely independent and specialist bookshops and left us with people with no interest in books, selling us books. ‘Buy one get one half-price’, ‘Buy Katie Price’s autobiography and get Elton John’s free’. You won’t see any of that in House of Books & Friends.
Instead, you will find an eclectic range of books, displayed thoughtfully and intelligently. It’s obvious that these books have been chosen by booklovers. They are arranged in a way that genuinely tempts you to buy. There is a counter serving coffee and snacks while the booksellers double up as baristas, adding to the sensation that the café is part of the experience rather than simply an add-on.
There is space to sit at your laptop if that’s what you want to do, but this doesn’t feel like an internet café. This is a place to come and browse the books and sit and chat.
At the back of the shop is an incredible space which retains the Reform Club’s original fixtures and fittings. Some people might remember it from visits to lingerie shop Agent Provocateur which previously occupied this space and used it as changing room. House of Books & Friends has repurposed it as an event space and it would clearly be a special place for a book launch, book club, community group, reading and any number of other events suggested by staff and customers.
House of Books & Friends is one of a remarkable number of good things to have come out of the horror of the pandemic. The idea for the bookshop was born in 2021 when gunnercooke founder and chair of the gunnercooke foundation, Darryl Cooke, recognised the impact that lockdown was having on those around him and in wider society. The lawyer wanted to help combat the silent problem that robs so many of joy and contentment – and could think of nothing better than the power of reading. And so he provided the start-up funding for House of Books & Friends.
Consider this: according to mental health experts, 45 per cent of people in the UK experience loneliness at some point. Meanwhile, the Campaign to End Loneliness reports that 5 per cent – that’s one in 20 people – experience loneliness often or all of the time.
House of Books & Friends is a Community Interest Company (CIC) meaning that its profits will go back into the community. In this case, the profits will be used to fund projects working with communities and charities within a square mile of the shop – initiatives helping to combat social isolation and to connect with all age groups including new parents and the elderly. The aim is to grow a network of bookshops across the country.
It’s a booklover’s paradise. And every purchase really will help to combat loneliness.
Main image courtesy of House of Books & Friends
House of Books & Friends is at 81 King Street, Manchester. It is open Monday to Friday 8am-6pm, Saturday 9am-6pm, and closed on Sunday.