Monday, 23 May 2011

Who Needs a Bookshop?

This isn't a blog about my work, because its my day off and that would be boring.  Let's assume for a minute that it's a massive coincidence that I work in bookshop because this blog is about being a reader, a book lover and a book buyer, and what that means in today's world.

Two big things have happened in the book world recently.  One is last surviving national specialist bookselling chain Waterstone's have been sold by owners HMV to a Russian billionaire, who, depending on who you listen to, is either the saviour of the human race or a man with more money than sense. 

The other is that in the book industry's annual awards, General or Chain Bookselling Company of the Year has gone to Sainsbury's.

If Mamut hadn't bought Waterstone's, and no one else had either, there is a strong possibility that HMV would have gone down in flames before the year was out, and Waterstone's would have gone down with them.  And the question I've been asking myself for the last couple of months, is, would anyone have noticed?  Who uses bookshops these days anyway?  Many of my close friends, avid readers with whom I swap book talk on a regular basis, have ereaders now.  Actually, what they have is Kindles, which means they buy all their books from a retailer who sells everything Sainsbury's does except cans of beans and petrol (and if they could figure out a way to fill up your car, I'm pretty sure they would).  No one has been up in arms about Amazon winning Direct Bookselling Company of the Year.

When I first started in bookselling, I would meet new people and tell them what I do.  'What a great job!' they'd say.  'I love bookshops.  I bet you get to read loads of books when they first come out.  I'd just read all day.'

Now when I meet new people and tell them what I do, they say 'I love bookshops.  I buy all my books online because its cheaper'. 

Now, I am the first to hold my hands up and say, yes, shopping online is cheaper.  Its more convenient and you have an infinite range at your fingertips because a warehouse is, I don't know, about a squillion times bigger than my 3000 sqm shop.  But imagine if you couldn't go into a bookshop, because there weren't any.  You could still buy books in the real world, sure.  You can buy them in supermarkets, or at the airport.  But the only things you'll be able to buy there are 'bestsellers', authors who are 'brands', although, of course, you could get anything you wanted online, and if you rummage down a hidden side street in a middle-class chocolate-box town you might find a marvellous independent bookshop, but I wouldn't bank on it.

Now imagine that you also don't have a local library, and the closest one you do have really only has bestsellers, authors who are 'brands'.  This basically means that in physical terms the only books you SEE, with your eyes, in 3D, are books that you seek out and purchase, or books that are lined up by the till point while you are doing your grocery shopping.  Does that matter?  We have been close to being there by the end of 2011.  In time, I'm sure more excellent independent bookshops and small chains would open in a variety of towns and cities across the country, but not before many publishers had been irrevocably damaged by the instant loss of almost 300 shops.

Apparently in a high street bookshop for every 100 paying customers, 43 are ' browsing, with the intention of buying online.'  So without high street bookshops, even online sales could fall.  I'm glad that, at least temporarily, the future of the bookshop on the high street has been secured.  The new team at the head of Waterstone's promises some exciting changes that if successful will bring high street bookselling into the 21st century and at the same time restore some of the good old-fashioned bookshopness, which has lost its lustre in the struggle to compete with the supermarkets and the internet.  But it don't mean nothin' if all those people at parties who tell me how great my job is don't use them.  Chains, independents, anywhere which celebrates the glory of the book in any shape and size, where the books you find are ones chosen by experts who just want to sell you any book and pick the best ones, rather than marketed at you by publishers who have decided to make x author their next big thing, and paid a premium to get them on the shelf in the supermarket to ensure this will be the case.

Which brings me onto Sainsbury's.  Now one of the things I love, love, love about my job, is the customers who aren't traditional booklovers but just read the new Dan Brown and couldn't put it down and want more like that please.  I don't care if they only read memoirs about abused children (although if I had the choice I'd really rather they didn't), reading and sharing literature of any kind is one of the most important things we can do to develop empathy, creativity, vocabulary, and knowledge on an infinite number of subjects.  But my shop can be a daunting place for people who don't know what 'fiction' means.  If Sainsbury's has a role to play in helping those customer find the books they like in a way that feels more comfortable, I salute them.  They are securing a literate and book-loving future for those customers and their children, which is one of the things bookselling is about.

But it's not all bookselling is about.  Its also about creating an audience for new writers, without whom the world would be a poorer place. Its about helping people fulfill dreams (one of my all-time favourite customers - he wears a bowtie and is the world's politest gentleman- is spending his retirement reading a lot of ancient greek/roman classics in their original language thanks to us finding him dictionaries, texts and background reading material), its about creating readers at birth and nurturing them with the proper care and attention as long as they keep coming back for more.  Libraries are marvellous places and can do many of the same things (and often more).  But I have always loved choosing a new book and knowing it is mine.  You don't get the same thrill from a library book.  And I find it hard to imagine you can get the same thrill picking up a book at Sainsburys. 

Unsurprisingly, booklovers everywhere have been somewhat unimpressed with the news, but who would you have given the award to?  Waterstone's has been closing stores, British Bookshops and Stationers have disappeared completely, Foyles won it last year and while they could easily win two years in a row, the judges argue that Sainsbury's hit every critera for the award.  Personally, I'd rather them than Asda.

Really, the only people we have to blame for this is ourselves.  After all, the winner of the Independent Bookseller of the Year was Bath's Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights which I have never visited but just fell a little bit in love with online for their gift vouchers (A 'Reading Spa Treatment', anyone?  Or a 'Year of Reading Delights'?).  If this is what we want the future of book buying to look like (and who doesn't?) we can make that happen with the following simple steps:

1) Use your local bookshop- eg, business where books make up at least 50% of the place, whether its a chain or independent.  Regularly.  To buy things, not just browse.
2) Every now and then, buy something there you didn't go in for, just coz it looks good.
3) Feedback - tell them what they are doing well, what they should do better.
4) Go home feeling smug and read a new book.
5) Don't buy books in the supermarket.

Happy reading!