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If they knocked down the Houses of Parliament, hardly anyone would mind that much, and it would free up a fantastic riverside site. Nelson’s Column? They could always build another one. Buckingham Palace? Is it really the best use of the space?
But this week there was news that another London landmark was under threat, and this one really would be missed. For 20 years, Sportspages Bookshop has been a West End institution, a haven and almost a club for its aficionados. Now it has gone into administration. Unless a buyer emerges soon, it will close.
And that truly will mark the end of an era. Sports-pages has been far more than just a place to find books that no one else would be mad enough to stock. It has been – if this doesn’t sound too pretentious – the intellectual headquarters of a sporting revolution.
It was founded by John Gaustad, a New Zealander who I reckon just wanted somewhere he could get the rugby books he liked. But he opened in the midst of that bizarre phase of British sporting history when the country – nudged along by Channel 4 – became briefly obsessed with American football. The soccer players of the day were overshadowed by the celebrity of one William “The Refrigerator” Perry, of the Chicago Bears.
Sportspages tapped into this boom, and into the more general mood that reading about sport, in books or newspapers, was now intellectually respectable. The shop quickly became filled with youngish blokes with – it being the 1980s – cash jangling in their pockets.
That initial craze withered, but as the 1990s began, something far bigger came along. Never mind American football. England’s footballers almost won the World Cup; the hooliganism that had almost destroyed the game faded; the Premiership began, and foreign stars moved in. And, above all as far as Gaustad was concerned, Nick Hornby wrote Fever Pitch and stood on its head the publishing rule that soccer books didn’t sell.
Then came the fanzines, thousands of them, anarchic magazines covering every football club in the country, and Sportspages became the global HQ.
Gaustad had already branched out into publishing. He helped to launch the annual William Hill Prize. Now there was heady talk of expansion – New York was mentioned, though he settled for a branch in Manchester plus the space next door to the original shop, set in an odd little walkway off Charing Cross Road.
His big sellers enabled him to stock what he called “one a year” books, which enhanced the shop’s reputation as a place where you could find anything. In contrast to most booksellers, who prefer the ones that shift, Gaustad was especially fond of a volume he stocked on the “kinesiology of sport”, along with the histories (in German) of second division Bundesliga clubs.
The good years lasted until the 1998 World Cup. The following year Gaustad got cancer and, though he recovered, there was an inevitable loss of energy and direction at the very time when small booksellers were starting to be challenged by the discounting of the leading chains and by the internet. Kinesiology? No need to go to the Charing Cross Road. You could look on the web. Most of the fanzines went in the same direction.
Then came the terror-related slump of the new century. In 2003, Gaustad took a much-needed holiday just when the Americans decided to invade Iraq. “If it’s the end of the world, people aren’t going to rush out and buy biographies of footballers,” he says now.
The shop’s sales plummeted and Gaustad ended up ceding control to the entrepreneur Charles Frewin, of Sports Book Direct. Now Frewin is out of the picture, and it has lately been owned by a four-man consortium. Sportspages remains a wonderful bookshop, but the character, the energy and the fun have gone.
How long it remains a bookshop at all is an open question. David Murphy, a partner in the administrators Gerald Edelman, says: “We are hopeful we can find a buyer. There is interest.”
Hope is not necessarily the same as optimism, and it might be hard to keep it going as a standalone business. But is it possible that one of the big chains, whose sports sections are often understocked, might think there is something to be gained? They would retain all their competitive advantages, but reap the benefits of a handy little niche.
So let’s hope this is not an obit. “We did something,” says Gaustad. “I wouldn’t say it was significant, but it was kind of important.” It was to me, and to thousands of other sports devotees too.