06 December 2016

Books or boutique hotels?

by Rufus Purdy Opinion

Before he arrived at Curtis Brown Creative to help run our London writing courses and online writing courses, Rufus Purdy was editor of an upmarket boutique-hotel guidebook. So why is he so narked that a library in his home town is to be turned into a luxury hotel?

In a 21st-century twist on the old ‘my local bank’s been turned into a trendy wine bar’ complaint, it was announced recently that Sheffield’s Central Library is on the verge of becoming a boutique hotel. The Chinese Sichuan Guodong Construction Group is looking into the possibility of turning the Twenties Grade II-listed building into a five-star luxury property that will sit at the heart of the city’s cultural quarter – alongside the Crucible and Lyceum theatres and just across the street from The Winter Gardens. The Art Deco library – which also houses the city’s Graves Art Gallery and the Library Theatre – looks set to become another of the UK’s 350-plus public libraries to have closed since 2010.

But why should we care about this latest encroachment by the seemingly unstoppable glacier of gentrification? After all, a boutique hotel is now as essential to a city’s sense of civic pride as a cathedral or a Premier League football team, isn’t it? Ex-Python Michael Palin, who grew up in Sheffield, doesn’t agree. ‘That a building, seeking to improve the lot of all Sheffielders should end up as a hotel for the rich and privileged seems a sad reflection on how little the city cares for its public service legacy,’ he says.

I’m with him on this. I, too, hail from Steel City and frequented Sheffield Central Library a lot in my teens and early twenties. It was from here that I first borrowed The Diary of Anne Frank, 1984, To Kill a Mockingbird and – erm – the biography of Kevin Keegan, and was first exposed to ideas bigger than those I was getting from home or at school.

Like all of us here at Curtis Brown Creative, I’m a firm believer in the power of reading – not just as entertainment, but as an educational tool and a challenge to lazy thinking. At the age of 41, I’m still surprised and challenged by the novels and non-fiction I read, so think how wide-eyed my seven-year-old daughter is when she encounters the ideas and worlds in the Jacqueline Wilson and Harry Potter books she takes out from our local library (also, incidentally, threatened with closure).

Books cost money so, to me, it’s criminal the people of my home town – a city of high unemployment and little spare cash – are being denied the opportunity to read for free. The library was created explicitly to expand Sheffielders’ horizons, so it seems perverse the de facto capital of the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire would send out a statement such as this. But as Sheffield City Council – like local authorities throughout the land – has had its budget slashed by £352 million over the past six years and is facing further cuts of £116 million over the next five, it simply can’t afford the library and its looming £30 million repair bill any more.

It’s particularly galling, though, that this centre of learning and self-improvement will be given over to a luxury hotel. Libraries are for everyone; boutique hotels are for the rich. I should know. I was editor of the upmarket Mr & Mrs Smith hotel guidebooks for years, and visited boutique hotels all over the world – reviewing the very best and giving the thumbs up or down to luxury properties keen to be included in the prestigious list. And nothing I saw in any of them persuaded me these weren’t the sole preserve of the financial elite.

I’ve nothing against boutique hotels – I like Egyptian-cotton sheets and a wide selection of well-mixed cocktails as much as the next big jessie – but I’d choke on my mint julep if I knew I was complicit in the transfer of a building that currently gives normal people opportunities to expand their minds for free to those who don’t baulk at spending £200 a night for a bigger-than-normal bed. There’s still time to save Sheffield Central Library – there’s a public meeting in Sheffield tonight and, thanks to the efforts of petitioners, the council will debate its closure again tomorrow – but the bigger question remains. Do those with the power over our public services still value books and the opportunities they bring, or will culture always be the first casualty of the cuts?

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