Let me tell you a true story. In 2012 my family went with some friends on holiday to Scotland. One day we were visiting a very pleasant, bustling little coastal town, popular with tourists. Strolling down the street we came across a bookshop. It was an independent, not part of a chain. I’ve always loved bookshops and find it vaguely painful to pass one without going inside – so, with the luxury of time on our hands, we did.
It turned out to be one of those TARDIS-like establishments that didn’t look very big from the outside but opened up pleasingly once inside. It was a well-stocked, attractive-looking place, and it had a decent children’s book section. Our party included a total of five kids, ranging in age from four to ten, so this was good. I’d already spotted an interesting looking tome in the shop window, our kids love to browse, so we were all set for an enjoyable experience. And the bookshop was pretty much guaranteed some sales – which, according to this recent article, was an opportunity they couldn’t have afforded to pass up too often. Or so you might think …
Before I proceed with my story, I want to pick out two quotes from the article in question. It’s about the ongoing decline in the number of independent bookshops in the UK. Specifically that means traditional, physical outlets – what in the US are usually called bricks-and-mortar stores (a phrase I find unreasonably irritating, by the way – the geeky pedant in the back of my brain keeps shouting ‘but the shops in malls are made of concrete and glass, surely? Wouldn’t physical be a better, more accurate term? – and shorter too!’ – but that’s just me).
Anyway. Here are the two quotes:
“The book trade, the government and the general public need to realise that if we don’t take action now, the future of our bookshops – and therefore the health of the publishing industry and reading itself is at risk.”
“It’s great that there are so many ways now to consume literature but the independent bookshop is a crucial part of our culture and I would hate to see them disappear from our towns and cities.”
(Emphasis is mine in both cases.)
I wonder what you think of those statements. I suspect I’m far from alone in being broadly sympathetic, to the second one at least. I’ve already mentioned my affinity for bookshops. If my wife and I go shopping together, the ideal scenario is a clothes store and a bookshop in close proximity – then we’re both happy. I’ve also mentioned in a previous post how much I love the good, solid, unashamedly old-fashioned book made out of dead trees, and that I like to consume both paper and e-books simultaneously (well not absolutely simultaneously, but you know what I mean).
I do think bookshops are important, and I do try to buy actual books from actual, bricks-and-mortar physical stores on a reasonably regular basis, even when I know I could probably buy it cheaper from Amazon. But I also buy books from Amazon and I refuse to feel guilty about it.
Because I sometimes find physical bookshops to be – if I’m honest – slightly frustrating places. For the Amazon generation, accustomed to the ability to quickly find whatever you’re looking for from a vast available choice, scanning the frequently disordered and thinly-stocked shelves of the average bookshop does not strike me as being always the best use of valuable time. Unless you really are content to browse at leisure with no little or no preconceived idea of what you want to read next. Most independent bookshops are on the small side, but even the larger ones cannot realistically compete with the choice available online.
One of my favourite recent discoveries is Erin Kelly. Having read one of her novels, last year I went looking for another. This was actually her first novel, and it has been adapted for TV in the UK. I decided to try to buy it in a physical bookshop. Could I find it? Could I heck. Even the Oxford branch of Waterstones, a sizeable chain store, didn’t have more than one of her books.
Perhaps it’s unfair to criticise bookshops, especially small ones, for not having a particular book. But like I said, this was a good-selling, contemporary, mainstream title that’s recently been on TV. It’s not in the Fifty Shades of Grey League, but I would expect most general interest bookshops in the UK to stock it.
But then some bookshops don’t help their cause by wasting their precious floor space by opening cafes and selling toys instead of carrying more, well, books. Diversification seems to be the in thing, but I’m not convinced it’s necessarily a good idea. In one independent store I visited last year, I couldn’t see very many books at all for all the racks of greeting cards and novelty pencils; in fact if the sign outside hadn’t said ‘bookshop’ I might not have guessed what it was. If I want a cup of coffee, I’ll go to a café. If I want stationery, I’ll go to a stationery store. Some bigger stores might have room to spare to diversify, but I suspect most really don’t.
But I could have asked a bookshop to order that Erin Kelly book, couldn’t I? Yes, I could. And in the past I’ve sometimes done that. But, to be honest, why not then just order it myself online? Surely the whole point of physical bookshops is that you can see, browse and hold the books themselves?
But what about the human touch? Good old fashioned customer service? Ah yes. That brings me nicely back to my story.
In that bookshop in Scotland, my first inkling of trouble was when I was almost knocked over by a thunder-faced woman bustling down the aisle. She did not appear happy. She looked, in a word, stressed. Now I know what you’re thinking, and let me say I’m the first to admit that my kids are not always 100% perfectly angelic. But, honestly, we’d been inside that shop roughly three minutes and the kids had been OK. Seriously. They were not screaming, running, vomiting or hitting anyone. They were chattering enthusiastically. They were picking up books (not dropping, throwing or drawing on them). They were happy to be there, and my kids being excited by books is something I’m extremely keen to encourage. I would hope that bookshops might be too.
A few minutes later, as I was approaching the counter with a book in hand, I noticed that the above-mentioned stressed woman – who it seem was someone senior in the shop, perhaps the proprietor – was conversing with my ten-year-old daughter. Well, hissing more like. She (the proprietor) then turned to me, upon learning that I was the father of the errant child, and loudly informed me, in front of the whole shop, that my daughter had bent the cover of the book she’d taken off the shelf and had been carrying around the shop. (My daughter had done that because she wanted to show her friend, presumably because she liked it.)
I can’t sell that book now, complained the bookshop woman. (In fact, knowing my daughter, in all probability she was about to nag me to buy it for her.) She stared at me accusingly, as if I’d personally sanctioned the wholesale desecration of her shop and its contents. I felt about ten inches tall. I mumbled an apology. I returned the book I’d been carrying, the one I’d been about to buy, to the shelf. I then ignored my sons’ requests for other purchases and removed myself and my family from the shop as quickly as possible.
The results of all this were as follows. Ten-year-old girls in tears: one. Embarrassed and confused parents: two. Sales for bookshop: zero.
Now I admit this is not typical of my experience of customer service in bookshops. But ever since the Scotland Incident I’ve felt rather self-conscious when taking my kids into similar establishments. What if they make too much noise? What if (gasp) they slightly bend a cover?
It’s one reason why I don’t subscribe to a certain view of the books retail business. The one that has this spectrum of goodness with independent bookshops at one end, selfless bastions of culture, halos glowing atop their flowing, literature-loving locks; then from that moral high ground we proceed downhill through chain bookshops; then online retailers other than Amazon; and finally, at the extreme opposite end, at the very bottom, Jeff Bezos gnawing on a baby’s thigh bone.
Amazon are not perfect, and there are strong arguments that their dominance of the book market is not a wholly good thing. But the fear and loathing they inspire in some quarters is a thing to behold. As far as I can see they are a highly entrepreneurial organisation that is simply very good at what they do. Sometimes they make mistakes. No doubt they can be prone to exploit their dominance in a way that’s not to everyone’s taste or advantage. But every experience I’ve had of their customer service has been either good or outstanding. They offer an exceptional range at low prices. They have helped to drive the revolution of e-books. And they’ve never, ever made my daughter cry.
I’ll say it again: I like bookshops. I’d prefer to see them survive and prosper – the good ones at least. And I acknowledge that it’s a tough business, and I admire those who stick at it for the love of books. It’s easy for people like me to snipe from the sidelines. But the world has changed and is changing, and no particular business model has a divine right to survive. It therefore seems to me that instead of moaning about Amazon and spreading alarmist clap-trap about the death of publishing, culture or reading itself being dependent on their survival, independent bookshops and their defenders might want to adopt a more proactive, creative, customer-focussed mindset that doesn’t involve raging at Amazon, declaring themselves ‘Kindle-free zones’* or generally straining, Canute-like, to resist the tide of progress.
(* I have seen at least one bookshop in the UK proclaiming this on a sign in their window, and another with a similar message. The precise purpose of this escapes me, beyond attempting to make a proportion of its customers feel guilty.)
Now I’m quite sure that there are many excellent independent bookshops who are taking a more positive approach. No doubt it’s still not easy for them, but I wish them all the best.
My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that in the future more independent bookshops will have to specialise. Trying to be generalist outlets, matching the range and price of the online giants, is a battle they can never hope to win. Subject specialism is one possible approach. Another is to jump on the localism bandwagon. If I had the money and time, I’d like to open up a bookshop showcasing Oxfordshire authors, including the self-published. My own books would be sold there, naturally; I mean, that would be one of the perks, right?
What do you think about physical bookshops? Do you think it’s vital they survive? Do you regularly buy from them? Do you think Amazon are the villains of the piece, the heroes or somewhere in between?