This month marks the centenary of Sam Read, one hundred years since the death of the bookshop’s founder. He had run a bookshop in Grasmere since 1887, and it seemed fitting to write a piece about his history in the village.

This material has been greatly enhanced by the diligent work of Jane Brimmer and Sarah Simpson, descendants of Sam’s uncle William Baldry. Jane and Sarah gave a wonderful talk to Grasmere History group in February 2019 and shared a wealth of research into Sam’s life.

Sam Read

Sam Read was born on 20th November 1845 and died on 18th November 1919. Born in Shipmeadow workhouse in Suffolk in 1845, Sam arrived in Grasmere aged 11 to join William Baldry and his wife Louise. Quite how this came to be is obscured in the mists of time but William was, at this point, the village schoolmaster and Sam was to be an able pupil, and also a pupil-teacher before leaving school to work for his uncle as a ‘shopman’. William was one of a number of photographers in the village experimenting in representing Lakeland life for the increasing number of visitors. In 1862, Baldry was also one of South Lakeland’s prominent booksellers, alongside Nicolson of Ambleside, Garnett of Windermere, Allan and Airey of Bowness and Atkinson of Kendal. Baldry managed to weather a bankruptcy in 1865 and persisted in running what was termed ‘Baldry’s Establishments, Grasmere’. When Sam was listed as a Bookseller’s assistant here in the 1870s, Baldry’s offering was diverse. Baldry’s advertised photographs, watercolour drawings, maps, books of views, souvenirs, patent medicines, aerated waters, newspapers, and apartments to let. The reassuring affirmation of a ‘Book Parcel from London Daily’ hinted at strong supply of books, but Sam must have been adept to switch his advice between potential customers…

Outside of the bookshop, Sam took on an ever-increasing list of public duties. He was clerk to the Local Board from 1872, the powerful village council of the day, and remained clerk to the successor Urban District Council until 1916. In addition he was assistant overseer of the poor, and a longstanding secretary to the Grasmere Sports from 1876 until his death.

In the autumn of 1887, Sam married Agnes Cowperthwaite and set up business on his own under the sign Read Bookseller & Stationer. The new bookshop began in Church Stile, which is now the National Trust shop opposite the churchyard, and had, prior to Sam’s bookselling, played host to many famous visitors when it had been Robert Newton’s Red Lion. A photograph taken of Sam outside the shop shows the requisite shop-awning (to protect the bookshop window from the bright sunshine), adverts for touring the area and picture postcards.

Read Bookseller & Stationer, Church Stile at the end of the 1880s

Daughter Helen Read was born in 1889. Some photographs from this time show Helen as a child at Church Stile. The Read family ran a four-bed boarding house from the same premises.

In March 1895, changes were multiple. There were plans for electric lighting along this stretch of the village, and the wall alongside the Church Stile shop was rebuilt and straightened. Reports in the Herald and Lakes News make clear how the shop was near the centre of village life, or at least the most informative tree…

The visitors to the village and the residents as well will miss the old familiar tree, which used to be so conspicuous as a bill posting station near to Mr. Read’s shop. The wall has been re-built in front of it, and the venerable old “pin-cushion,” for it is one mass of nails and tacks, is almost obscured from view.

In March 1894, Sam bought the site of today’s shop, Broadgate House, but let it to the local mountain guide Johnson Thompson whilst his tenancy of Church Stile ran down. Thompson had previously owned Broadgate House and had fallen behind on mortgage payments. Unfortunately there was some dispute about Thompson overstaying his tenancy. We now know this because, as with most important events in Grasmere, there was a court case. Sam moved his family and business to Broadgate House in November 1895.

In December 1895 the Herald and Lakes News ran a special feature remarking on “things commercial” in Grasmere, taking a tour along the streets to record how shops appear. This tour highlights:

For Christmas cards and handy little presents commend us to Mr. Sam Read’s new shop at Broadgate, where the exhibition of pretty articles is an exceptionally attractive one.

Sam Read outside Read Bookseller & Stationer, Broadgate House, Grasmere

The Read’s new property offered a shop-corner with three large windows and a sizeable increase in space for accommodation. Broadgate House offered seven beds for those boarding with the Read’s. A photograph from 1907 sees a smartly-dressed Sam standing outside the shop doorway with his hands behind his hips. Newspaper advertisement boards and picture postcard displays stand outside the shop. The windows themselves are crammed full of things. There’s evidence of a kind of bunting suspended along the bottom of each window, with books stood behind and images displayed at all heights, some of them mounted prints. The shop itself would have been smaller than it is today with the sales space taking up barely two rooms. Sam shared the building with the Urban District Council office and a Lancaster Banking Co. branch (what is now Lucia’s takeaway on College Street would have then been the bank). It’s clear that the windows were as essential as they are today for encouraging bookshop business.

Frances Tobey, an American literary academic visiting from Colorado in 1916, wrote in poetry magazine Poet Lore of witnessing a ‘stream of pedestrians … rounding Mr. Read’s book-store corner’ on village rushbearing day.

By this point, trained as a bookseller by his uncle and in business on his own since 1887, Sam had added village surveyor, collector of rates and churchwarden to his portfolio of village roles. Meanwhile, the shop prospered with a focus on books, serving as a ‘depot of SPCK’ (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge) and holding Mudie’s circulating library. The persistence of a village bookshop seems to have been as unique then as it is now. Sam’s daughter Helen once remarked “my father’s bookshop was rather a what you might call – it was something quite out of the ordinary then – there wasn’t one in Ambleside.” Though certain books could have been sourced elsewhere, the demand for the works of all the ‘Lake Poets and Authors’ alongside the map and guidebook market established a solid base for the book-browsing literary tourist.

When he died in 1919, obituaries give the measure of feeling towards Sam Read. The Whitehaven News prints that “He was a man who had dealings with a very wide circle, among whom he had many friends, and was universally respected” meanwhile a ringing tribute features in The Yorkshire Post:

A man of deep piety, cheery, and constantly kind as he was, to go down to Sam Read’s shop and have a crack with him about men and things was a real tonic.

The Post obituary also mentions something of his relationship to books which emphasises Sam’s contemporary reading: “He kept himself abreast of modern literature, and made a speciality of Lake country books, of which he himself possessed a considerable library.” These are traditions we hope continue in the shop that still bears his name today.

– Will