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 booksellers, discovering good bookshops, debating the merits of lucky-dip reading, and more.
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.