Imagine walking into a bookstore with no books. Makes no sense right? But that’s a little like what walking into the Blackwell’s at the Wellcome Collection was like. My first impression was the smell of food, since it is based behind a cafe, my second was “man, I’m hungry”, and my third was childlike glee as I noticed the stuffed toy bacterium at the forefront of the store.
The childish incoherence and delight continued as we encountered the first section of the store. By “we” I am maybe not-so-surprisingly referring to my classmates, a large group of “adults” in our early 20’s. Who all proceeded to crowd around the children’s toys and books with admiring gasps and coos of adoration at the toy pancreases, microbes, and picture books of holographic polar bears.
Within five minutes I had already been surprised by the bookstore at The Wellcome Collection since it was situated in a library-cum-museum not so heavily catered towards children, considering the graphic descriptions of diseases and reading room rife with disturbing imagery and books. However, the store seemed to be marketed mostly towards children. Or students enrolled in higher education obsessed with picture books. The stands loaded with cuddly toys, colouring books, and bright objects designed to draw attention were front and centre of the store. My attention was next drawn to the stands behind those on the right of the store which hosted the merchandise specific to the Wellcome Collection, such as water bottles with skeletal diagrams on them.
Me being me, I was unconsciously drawn to aesthetically pleasing objects with a direct slant on my interests. As if a honing beacon, my body was drawn to the area loaded with Penguin brand postcards – specifically detailing famous sci-fi covers throughout the years.
By contrast the reading room of the Wellcome Library was a mystical, enlightened banquet hall. An audible gasp came from our group as each member stepped over the threshold and was basked in the heavenly glow of the lights above.
Fabric embroidered with a simplified reproduction of biochemist Dorothy Hodgkin’s (1910-94) drawing of insulin (Faherty, A (2014). Reading Room Companion. London: The Wellcome Trust. 74.) covered the furniture regaling the room and the cushions haphazardly strewn over the plush red staircase. The impression this room gave in comparison to the casual affair of the bookshop was that this was where the hardcore readers came. The readers who belong here sit in an armchair for nigh on eight hours comfortable with their compendium of Victorian portraits with added animal taxidermy heads as in “You Animal, You!” by Charlotte Cory, one of the books available in the reading room.
Having gone from one to the other the difference was palpable. In the Blackwell’s, as anyone would imagine in a store, all traffic was directed towards the till which stood front and centre with large writing behind stating “BOOKS” and “GIFTS” were available if you paid at the register. The instant sense of comfort present in the reading room however was the complete antithesis. In a sense I guess it shouldn’t have been surprising but the immediate feeling that we could sink happily down into the insulin-covered cushions in supreme comfort was there. This, if unintentional, seems a nice homage to the man himself, who according to a post on the Wellcome blog, while enjoying social niceties to a degree preferred the comfort of solitude. (Macfarlane, R. (2014). Henry Wellcome, Oscar Wilde and the American Tenor. Available: http://blog.wellcomelibrary.org/2014/10/henry-wellcome-oscar-wilde-and-the-american-tenor/. Last accessed 14th Oct 2015.)
“And whilst it would be going too far to draw Wellcome as a social gadfly, material in his surviving correspondence does suggest a man drawn to a good many social occasions and group events. Wellcome seems, however, a man more comfortable in organising a party than attending one.”
Essentially, as with all shared spaces, the purposes for each differ depending on your reason for being there. For knickknacks and paraphernalia, the bookshop is clearly the places to go – perhaps more surprisingly the aforementioned items are more memorable to me than the books they actually sold there. In a place as wacky as the Wellcome Library the shop’s items reflected that and became the more defined feature of the place, since most of the books were those found in any other store. The reading room, however, to the book-sniffers in our group was a place of wonder and intrigue, totally unique and exciting as a shared book space. A library unlike any we had entered before, complete with straitjacket and slice of human body part to break up the time between research and reading.
*All pictures my own.