The way to enlightenment: exploring Topping & Company’s new home

Books are knowledge and knowledge is power. And there’s a whole lot more of both in Topping & Company’s impressive new venue in York Street. Emma Clegg goes through the once-blind main door to meet co-director Hugh Topping.

The Friends’ Meeting House in York Street, formerly a Freemasons’ Hall, was built in 1817–19 in a Greek Revival style by London architect William Wilkins (1778–1839), who designed The National Gallery. Grade II-Listed, the building stands there elegantly over 250 years later with its dramatic façade with projecting, pedimented Ionic portico supported by two columns. The building has had many uses over the years. The Freemasons stopped using it in 1823, after which it became an assembly room, a venue for exhibitions, and was converted into a Nonconformist chapel, before becoming the Friends Meeting House in 1872. After a century of use by them, part of the building was leased to a charity, with the main room used for book fairs and Christmas market stalls. There have been various planning proposals, including one in 2009 for a Brasserie Blanc, but the suggested conversions were considered to undermine the building’s listed status.

Now, however, the Friends’ Meeting House has been given a dramatic new energy and purpose within its precious listed structure, because Topping & Company Booksellers opened their bookshop there in November this year, taking over the lease with a plan to purchase the building after three years. Hugh Topping explains their decision to relocate: “We had been at The Paragon for 14 years and our lease was coming to an end so we were working out what we were going to do next. We’re always greedy for more books and when we saw this building was available and had a look around we just fell in love with the place. We knew it would create a really special home for a bookshop, a building we can invite everyone into and open up to the public.”

The original Masonic hall was built with a central blind door and two blind windows on the front façade, and was lit solely by two roof lanterns (with fine plaster details to their ceilings) for reasons of secrecy, but it is thought that the windows may have been later converted into sashes because the lighting proved inadequate for its use as a chapel. The central doorway (with full entablature above) was ‘blind’ in the Freemasons’ design for the reason that, “the way to enlightenment is not always obvious.” Opening up the doorway was one of the first stages of the conversion work, which started in March this year. And despite the new door opening and the resulting light, enlightenment, it has to be said, is now here in the form of shelves and shelves of books.

Above: The Great Hall is the centre of activity, with its newly constructed stairway and gallery

An Impressive Space
This is an architecturally dramatic location, which offers around 3,000 square foot of space – double the space of the Paragon bookshop – and it’s the largest independent bookshop to open in England for several decades, housing around 75,000 books. As well as the repair and refurbishment of the historic fabric, a new oak-clad gallery structure (now with books on arts, design and culture) was inserted into the Great Hall, the main room, to increase the retail floor area, and a lift was installed to provide access to all levels, including the lower hall. The latter is a massive area in its own right, full of literary cubby-holes created by shelving partitions, and where you’ll find subjects such as cookery, history, politics, travel and children’s – this floor will also be the location for cookery demonstrations.

The Great Hall itself is wide and high, with globe lights and the original foliate frieze with egg-and-dart moulding. The sturdy wooden sliding library ladders (also in the lower hall) lock in place and allow access to the higher shelves. There is the comforting presence of a grandfather clock, originally made in Bath, a large Topping & Company-style handwritten chalkboard against the wooden lift encasement, a kitchenette behind the main desk to allow constant tea and coffee provision for all (and one in the lower hall too). There is even a secret view of Ralph Allen’s Town House from the stairs leading to the lower hall. Clearly Amazon can’t compete with any of this.

The location is delightfully central, although the bookshop no longer has a main window to lure customers in. Hugh says, “There is no shop window, but a bigger door and frontage, and lots more footfall. We love York Street, which is pedestrianised. We can see people sitting outside having pizzas and coffee on the pavements, so it’s a lovely atmosphere and slightly removed from the hustle and bustle of our busy traffic corner up in The Paragon.”
The project has seen Hugh – whose home is in Edinburgh – in permanent residence in Bath since the spring. I ask what issues were encountered in the planning and conversion of the shop, and the logistics of the move. “The new shop opened on time in November. It was a big push towards the end, but it always is. The thing that was new to us all was that we were used to ordering new books for a new shop, but we’d never had to bus books down from one venue to another at the same time.

“I’m not going to pretend it’s all been plain sailing, but it’s genuinely difficult to think of any huge snags. When you are working with people like Mark Wray Architects, Wraxall Builders, Wheelers and James Normand and Son, our joiners, it’s just a pleasure. We have worked with James Normand for years, ever since we opened our St Andrews bookshop and they are fantastic to work with. That shared understanding goes a long way to ensuring everything runs smoothly because we don’t actually need to check everything. They know what they are doing and have made thousands of bookcases for us.

Our design philosophy is that if there is a wall, put a bookcase on it, and if there isn’t a wall, see if we can put a bookcase there anyway

“Our design philosophy when it comes to bookshops is that if there is a wall, put a bookcase on it. And if there is not a wall, see if we can put a bookcase there anyway,” laughs Hugh. “So really they are quite easy to design because you just put as many bookcases as you can in to have as big a range of titles as possible. And that’s not just to house the bestsellers – we want the book that maybe someone wants every five years, and we want to have it that one day when they come in for a browse.”

I ask if the listed status has caused any issues in negotiations with the Council. “The Council have been very supportive,” says Hugh. “We are here for the long term and we want to look after the building, so we’re looking after the place as well as making it suit the needs of a bookshop. The final element we had to agree was the signage, and this took a little while to find the balance that the planning department was happy with.”

Support has been available from other sources too. “The Friends have been incredibly accommodating to work with,” explains Hugh, “They have dropped in frequently throughout the project and are really excited about having the building open again, because it’s an important part of their history and life as well.”

And the local business community is an important cooperative force, explains Hugh: “The lovely thing about Bath is that it’s an independent spirited place and that’s what originally attracted us 14 years ago when we first moved here. It’s a great literary city and one with significant support for independent businesses.”

The Booksellers
Hugh tells me that the number of staff has also doubled: “The Paragon shop just had the one desk so we were all squeezing behind it, so it’s a real novelty now having space and lots of different desks we can choose from.”

Saskia Hayward, who deals with press and marketing, among other duties, explains why she loves her role. “This new building is an uplifting space to be in and it’s such an exciting project. It’s a space that inherently gives you energy. All our booksellers have their own sections, which I love – mine are history and politics. So each staff member knows all the books and picks what comes in, and that creative control is a privilege, because there is no overseer telling you what you should order in. It’s really hands-on and all new staff get to know how you build up a section and what the best books are.”

How appropriate that the darkness of a blind façade has been opened up to welcome the light of knowledge and discovery.

Topping and Company Booksellers, York Street, Bath; 01225 428111;