Why I still love bookshops

I’ve written about bookshops a lot on this blog over this years. There’s a good reason for this. For me, good bookshops have always been inseparable from the joy of reading.

When I was in my early twenties and working in a job I absolutely hated, I used to escape to the nearest bookshop and browse the shelves for a different world to inhabit for a time. When I moved to New York, I was astonished to discover huge, sprawling bookshops where they not only allowed you to stay all day and late into the night reading, but actively encouraged it.

When I became a published writer, I came to understand the important role that bookshops play in supporting new writers, organising events, and introducing readers to new books. And all along, as a reader, I’ve enjoyed chatting to booksellersdiscovering good bookshops, debating the merits of lucky-dip reading, and more.

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All this, however, has taken place against a backdrop of almost constant loss. The number of bookshops in the UK has fallen below 1,000.  I’ve watched bookshops die myself, from large chains that I won’t miss much to really good local bookshops whose loss I still mourn. I’ve found myself rooting for the survival of Waterstones, the corporate behemoth of my youth, now comprehensively out-behemothed by the terrifying Borg that is Amazon.

It irritates me when people talk about bookshops as if they’re an exotic but impractical species of bird, doomed to extinction unless they’re given special help against their bigger, more aggressive predator (yep, Amazon again).

The truth is that traditional bookshops have some major advantages over internet retailers.

First of all, there’s no better way to discover a good book than by visiting a good bookshop, chatting to a knowledgeable bookseller, getting recommendations and flicking through some of the books on offer. Amazon’s recommendation system, on the other hand, is moronic by comparison, producing stuff like: “Hey, looks like you just bought a map of Europe. Clearly you love maps of Europe. Here are five other maps of Europe you might want to buy.” (Yes, I’ve written about the uselessness of automated book recommendations as well.)

Second of all, it’s an enjoyable experience. Being surrounded by books is a pleasant feeling, in a way that having access to a lot of data on a computer never is. You can browse and wander, sit and read, browse some more, maybe grab a coffee if you’re in a bigger bookshop. Buying online, on the other hand, is a functional activity. It’s great if you buy eBooks, but thankfully eBooks have not made physical books obsolete in the way people thought they would. They have their place (I’m using them right now, unfortunately, while I travel), but traditional books are still popular. And a traditional shop is the most pleasant place to buy them.

Third, and often overlooked, is the sheer convenience of buying from a physical bookshop. If you live or work near one, you can literally pop in, and if the book you want is in stock you can have it in your hands instantly. If it’s not in stock, you can usually order it and have it delivered in 24 hours. Both of those are far more convenient than ordering online, waiting for at least a day and often much longer, and then having problems with delivery if you’re out and the package is too big, etc. Internet retailers are offering ways around this, but none are as convenient as just going to the shop and buying.

Of course, the problem is that sometimes your local shop doesn’t have the book you want in stock, or if you’re in an unfamiliar area you may not even know where your nearest shop is. There’s a new app called NearSt that sounds interesting for this. You search for the book you want, and it searches the stock of local bookshops to tell you where you can buy it.

To be clear, I don’t have any connection to NearSt or any incentive to promote it. It just sounds like an interesting startup idea, and perhaps struck a chord with me because I had the idea of making it easier to search the stock of local shops years ago, but lacked the technical knowledge (and probably the motivation, funding and lots of other things) to make it happen. So I’m happy to see it existing now, and hope it helps a few more people discover good books.

I’m also writing about it because I’m aware that any new venture like this faces a chicken-and-egg type of problem: they need to get bookshops to sign up, and they need to get shoppers to sign up, and both want the other to sign up first. Right now the app seems pretty new—it’s limited to bookshops in London, and not all of them of course, and is only on iOS. But other versions, and other cities, and more bookshops, are apparently coming soon. I hope it works out for them. Here’s a quick demo:

Of course, the final, somewhat inconvenient truth is that Amazon is often cheaper than traditional bookshops, and for many people that’s a big deal. I’ve sometimes bought on Amazon in the past because money was tight and the savings were valuable. But the more I learn about where those price savings come from, the more uncomfortable I get with supporting such a business model just to save a few quid.

So any new developments that may help bookshops survive are welcome to me. Let me know if you’ve heard of any other technologies that could be good news for bookshops. And remember: ten years ago, the doom and gloom around bookshops was so strong that I’d have been surprised to see any still around in 2015. There have been losses, but the bookshop lives on. Go pay one a visit if you haven’t recently, and see what you’ve been missing.

 

10 thoughts on “Why I still love bookshops

  1. I like the concept. Waterstones can check stock online but I’ve often found it wrong. The size and number of stores in London making it more likely you’ll find what you want… I hope it catches on in other places where it might be even more useful.

    1. Yes, it’s a good concept! Although if the bookshop’s online stock is wrong, I guess the app would be wrong too. You’re right, it would be very useful in other places. Hope it gets to Carnelian Valley soon 🙂

  2. Not sure I’ll try the app, as I’m not often in London and as part of the pleasure is simply going in and letting a book choose me rather than the other way around. But I really appreciate the link to favored bookshops in London, which I’ll try to visit next time I’m there. I just discovered a very good new bookstore in San Francisco (new, well, 2011, I just hadn’t noticed it before), and was delighted to see that the trend of bookstores closing seems to be countered by a few more daring to open up. Turning them into hybrid bookshop/event/reading/gallery spaces seems to be helping a few of them survive.

    1. Hi Scott,

      Yes, I know what you mean about going in and letting a book choose you! That is such a pleasure. I never have those unexpected discoveries when shopping online, but browsing a bookshop’s shelves and coming across an intriguing new read is a great feeling.

      It’s good to hear about the new bookshop you found in San Francisco. There are some of those in London, too, and others thriving under new management. You make a good point about hybrid spaces. Bookshops can create local, face-to-face reading communities in a way that websites can’t. There’s one near where I used to live in north London, Big Green Bookshop, where the owners are very good at organising creative and interesting events. It’s turned a small side-street shop into a literary destination, and I’m sure it’s been critical in helping them survive.

  3. Hello, Andrew!
    I also love bookshops. We have several FNAC stores in the PORTO area and the big supermarkets all now sell books. But there’s hope of reversing this tendency. Recently three new bookshops have opened in the centre of the city.

    1. Hi Isolete, Good to hear from you! That’s good news about the three new bookshops opening in the centre of the city. It seems as if there is more optimism around the fate of bookshops these days. When eBooks first came in and online shopping was becoming more popular too, a lot of people thought the end was nigh, but now perhaps bookshops are figuring out ways to survive and thrive in the new world. Supermarkets are another threat, although they strike me as being more about impulse purchases – I don’t know if anyone would go to Sainsbury’s to buy a book! Or maybe it’s just that I wouldn’t 🙂

  4. I’m catching up on old posts.

    The situation is a bit different in France: we still have 2500 books stores and they seem to survive. The law is favourable to independant booksellers (fixed prices, reduced VAT rates…) I hope it stays this way as books are not a commodity.

    I also prefer to buy books in bookshops, because I like the atmosphere, because it’s a way to discover new books. And let’s face it, I like it that they employ local people and pay their taxes here and not under a special tax ruling in a foreign country.

    1. Hi Emma
      Good to hear from you! I’m very glad to hear things are better in France. We used to have a similar fixed-price rule in the UK, but it was abolished in favour of “free market” competition. The result has been a complete disaster, but nobody even talks about going back to the old rules. I wish we would learn something from the way it’s done in France—I wrote about this a few years ago, in fact: http://andrewblackman.net/2011/01/learning-from-the-french/

  5. Back in the 70s and 80s libraries were still popular. I have fond memories of the many Saturday mornings I spent trawling the Johannesburg library for something to read. Likewise I spent many a happy hour wandering around CNA looking for Enid Blyton books to spend my birthday and pocket money on.

    Nowadays I’m not that attached to bookshops and there are two main reasons for this. One, I live a minimalist lifestyle and two, there are so many amazing Indie authors out there whose books are only available online.

    That’s not to say I turn my nose up at actual books, it’s just the stories on mu Kindle hold way more appeal for me. 🙂

    1. Hi Angela, Thanks for commenting! That’s interesting to hear. I’m definitely with you on the minimalist lifestyle—I’ve sold or donated most of my physical books, along with a lot of other stuff, as I tried to slim down my life in preparation for living on the road. I can’t seem to get excited about reading on the Kindle in the same way I do about real books, though. I have books stacked up on my Kindle, and I just don’t read them as much as I used to when I had a stack of books on my nightstand and couldn’t wait to open them up.

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