Why I like independent bookshops

You often hear people talking about supporting independent bookshops as if they’re some charity case. I don’t agree with this – they have real advantages. One of them really hit me recently when I was buying a book for my nephew’s birthday. Time was short, and I was worried about being able to buy it, write the inscription, wrap it and send it off to reach him on his birthday.

I checked various online stores, and unless I wanted to pay a lot for express shipment, none could guarantee delivery in less than a week. When I emailed my local independent bookshop, though, they replied quickly to say that the book was not in stock, but they could order it for me and it would arrive the following day. One day after deciding which book to buy, I was able to walk over to the shop and have the book in my hand. I also had a nice half-hour chat with the bookshop owner about the state of the publishing industry and the world in general. The shop in question was the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green, which I can really recommend, but any decent local bookshop will have a similar service.

Of course, Amazon’s great for a lot of things. I love the amount of information and reader reviews, which in fact helped me decide which book to buy in the first place. They can often give you a cheaper price due to the volume of books they sell and the discounts they negotiate with publishers. The same goes for other online stores like the Book Depository and Books etc. But there are certain things that local, independent shops are just better at. Everyone talks about the friendliness, book recommendations, etc., and that’s all important, but to me the fact that it’s often quicker and easier to buy from them is often overlooked.

Click here to read a post I wrote on the challenges facing independent bookshops in the UK, and here to read how they handle it in France. I also linked to a list of independent bookshops in London, and wrote a eulogy to mark the closure of my local north London bookshop.

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There are 8 comments

  1. Nice post, Andrew! It was interesting to read about your experience at your local independent bookshop. I love shopping at independent bookshops! One of my favourites was called ‘Intouch’ which was there in a city that I used to live in earlier. The store owner was like a friend and he knew my reading taste and he used to sometimes keep books reserved for me, before displaying them on the shelf. I have bought so many treasures there – treasures which I haven’t been able to find elsewhere. I like online bookstores for the kind of books that are available and the way they are able to source difficult-to-get books. But shopping at an indie bookshop is a wonderful pleasure on its own.

  2. Hi Vishy, it’s great to have a relationship like that with a bookshop owner. The online stores try to recreate that kind of thing with their recommendation systems, but it’s never quite the same. You’re right, the online stores are great for certain things, but shopping at a good indie is a pleasure in itself!

  3. Amazon isn’t all that quick, it’s true. What I like about independent book shops, is the fact they are often specialized. When you look for psychology you go to this store, literary fiction would be somewhere else and you always see new books displayed but the the big online stores are considerably cheaper.
    I wonder how the independent stores survive, it seems a miracle.

  4. Hi Caroline,
    Yes, specialising seems a good strategy. It’s so difficult for them to compete on general stock, given the price advantage of the big chains. A specialised shop can really give a strong representation of a particular genre. There’s one near me in north London, for example, called New Beacon Books, which has a really good selection of books about the African diaspora. They have some other stuff too, particularly left-wing political books, but on their core subject they have a really comprehensive selection and it’s much easier to shop there than to find something in a bigger store.

  5. Hello,
    Thanks for sharing your experience.
    I recently heard a radio show on France Inter about indepedant bookshops in France. I learnt there are 3000 bookshops in France but I can’t tell if it’s a lot or not. A lot of them only survive and still exist because book prices are fixed here (you can’t discount more than 5%)in order to preserve independant bookshops.
    As a reader, I know I should buy my books in an independant shop but I don’t have time to go there and end up buying online.

  6. Hi Emma!
    You make a good point about the discounting – we used to have a similar system here, called the Net Book Agreement, but about 15 years ago it was dismantled, and since then many booksellers have gone out of business. I think we can learn a lot from the approach in France – in fact I wrote a post about it recently – https://andrewblackman.net/2011/01/learning-from-the-french/.
    As for whether you should buy books in an independent bookshop, I don’t really think it’s a matter of obligation. Depending on where you live and what your schedule is like, it may be hard to shop in an independent bookshop. I’m lucky that I have a few good ones within walking distance, and so generally I prefer to buy from them (although I do also buy online sometimes, buy from big chains, buy second-hand, go to the library, etc., depending on what’s most convenient for that particular book).

  7. Andrew – nice blog! I live in Cambridge and wish I had an independent bookstore in town. There’s Heffers, now owned by Blackwells, which seems to be doing a great deal better than Waterstones, which looked oddly empty when I was in it today. If an indie came along, though, I’d definitely be a regular. Being able to discuss new stock with someone who really knows the book world is just a delight. I would own a bookstore myself, if I came into a massive, surprise inheritance….

  8. Thanks! I’m surprised to hear that Cambridge doesn’t have an independent bookshop, as it seems big enough and of course the large university population would seem to be a natural market. I agree, it’s great to talk books with someone who is knowledgeable and passionate. Sometimes you do get that in the big chains, but it’s a bit of a lottery. Opening a bookshop has always been a dream of mine as well. Maybe one day!

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