I got depressed about bookshops recently. A great little London literary magazine, Smoke, has just published its last issue. The editor/founder Matt Haynes explained:
Of the hundred-odd shops that stocked our early issues, well over half have now closed. And when Borders ceased trading just before Christmas, we lost not only more than 25% of our sales overnight, but also three dozen high-profile spots from which to be subliminally sublime.
I was really sad to hear this. Smoke is a magazine where I got one of my first stories published, and it’s a magazine I’ve subscribed to for several years and always enjoyed reading. The writing was always fresh and interesting, and it was great to have the London focus. Haynes says he plans to do new things: “Because the system no longer works for us, we’re inventing a new one.” Maybe that’s what’s happening now in general, just a change in the way things work. But I can’t help seeing it as a loss.
Then yesterday I was in Leatherhead, a fairly small commuter town just southwest of London, and discovered a wonderful independent bookshop called Barton’s. I was on my way home so didn’t get to stop long, but I really enjoyed my ten-minute browse. I came across a book on the shelf that I’d wanted to buy for ages but had never got around to (Crow by Ted Hughes). Then I saw another in the bargain bin that was perfect for me (a guide to caravan and camping sites in Europe, a few years out of date but still useful for planning a trip my wife and I are going to take next year). A sign said “Make us an offer” and so I offered £1 and the owner accepted. The Ted Hughes was full RRP, £3.99 (it’s a slim volume).
I have bought many books online, but it’s always been a purely functional activity. This brief stop at Barton’s I really enjoyed. Apart from the two books I ended up buying, I saw loads more that I had to restrain myself from buying. It was a friendly, welcoming place, and the owner seemed very knowledgeable about books. I told him how nice it was to come to a new town and find a good independent bookshop, and he agreed with me that things were tough for bookshops at the moment. He listed a few in nearby towns that had gone under, but said that he was doing OK.
In fact he was quite positive, saying that his main worry at the moment is the recession, not so much ebooks and internet sellers. He said that yes, people can often get books cheaper on the internet, but they could do that anyway with supermarkets or discount stores. What he offers is a pleasant buying experience, knowledgeable advice, friendly banter, recommendations, the ability to locate hard-to-find books, etc. He told me about a woman who’d come into the shop saying her sons wouldn’t read, and he spent an hour with them finding out what they liked and coming up with some suggestions for them to take on holiday. The woman came back a few weeks later and said that her sons had read the books in the first few days of the holiday and they’d had to find a bookshop in the area to buy more by the same author.
What he said reminded me of what I heard a while back in my local bookshop Prospero’s Books. I was saying that they must be worried after a budget bookshop, House of Books, opened across the street. They said it hadn’t had much effect: they offered a different service, and catered to a different market. There will always be people who just want cheap books, but there are enough people who value what a good independent bookshop has to offer.
It’s good to go to places like this and find they are thriving, but I can’t help thinking about all the other bookshops that haven’t made it. On the train on the way back to London yesterday, I realised how odd a thing it was for me to say, that I was happy to find a bookshop in Leatherhead. I’m not that old, but I remember when pretty much any town you visited would have a local bookshop, often several. Maybe it’s OK that all that business is now going to Amazon instead. Maybe it’s just the way things go, and something new and better will come out of it in the end. But I can’t help seeing it as a loss.