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!


  1. I really enjoyed reading this post - I gave up working in bookselling 3 years ago this month to have a child after 18 years in the job. Ever since I lost my staff discount I have been struggling with my conscience - I love bookshops and I love buying books, but money is much tighter with only one income and the little money drainer in tow! I do buy books on amazon and I also buy books in bookshops and have even purchased in sainsburys (sometimes it is such an ordeal getting around the aisles with a 2 year old that only the latest copy of your favourite crime authors paperback will cheer you up, and even then it is touch and go) but I do ENJOY the purchase much more from a bookshop - I guess it is all about balance but I know that I couldn't find all the wonderful quirky books on amazon that I find on the shelves of a well-stocked bookshop. Book shopping for me on the high street is all about a destination for the family - something to distract the toddler for a few minutes and coffee and cake so me and the hubby can take it in turns for an uninterrupted browse. Give me all this and I find it hard to come out without a book or two or eight as recently happened at bluewater - oops there goes my budget!

  2. Excellent blog! I can remember only one time I bought a book in a supermarket and that was one of the Harry Potters when I was fourteen or something like that and I woke up at 7am the day it was out so I could dash to the supermarket (sorry to say it was an Asda!) and pick it up. I had no clue that Sainsbury's won the bookselling company of the year award but I find that very sad! One of my favourite things to do is to spend time browsing in a book store. I just love the smell of books and how the paper feels. I have a tablet pc that was given to Myrna and me by her dad. We use it to read books on. It's nice because we can take it on holiday and don't have to pack a seperate suitcase only for books that I was known to do when I went to Vietnam ;) Also it's nice because there are lots of Dutch books on there that I can read, I think something like 16gb worth of books is on it which is...quite a lot!

    There is a bookstore chain here in the Netherlands called selexys scholtens and the shop in Groningen is quite large with 3 floors. However the people who work there are not like the people I remember from when I worked in Waterstone's or indeed in other Waterstone's branches I have visited. I once asked about a book I wanted to get Myrna. A history book and I wasn't sure where the history section would be or even what part of history the book was written about. The woman behind the desk just said 'oh that's on the ground floor'. Eventually I found it but it was a very different feeling from what I was used to in a book shop! And the people who sit behind the till seemed more like supermarket staff.

    Also the fact that in the Netherlands, books are a lot more expensive than in England with most paperbacks being priced at 15 euros (a book you can find for 10 euros is very cheap!) and hardbacks reaching 30 euros or more. (I have no clue where to find the euro sign on this keyboard) So these things make me buy my books online because I don't have much to spend in these expensive, unfriendly bookshops.

    Anyway this comment has been very long and rambly! I just wanted to say I love book shops, libraries (but i'm not very good with remembering to take the books back on time to those!) and if the books were as cheap and the people as nice as they are in England bookshops I would definitely buy my books from them. But for now, sadly, online shopping it is.

  3. Really enjoyed the blog.
    In the spirit of step 3, I think measures have to be taken to deliver bookshops that really do offer something that you cannot get anywhere else:
    1. Have lots and lots of author events even if the event itself may not make any money. This is as much about publishers, who are wary of sending writers out to something embarrassingly small, but they should be hounded to cough up writers or groups of them. This is something that no supermarket or website can emulate.
    2. For years the range has been utterly predictable; front of store worse still. Because of this the entire raison d'etre has been undermined. All reports should be torn up, beyond a minimal core stock list, a bestseller chart and books reviewed in the media. Everything else should be driven by branch level staff using their knowledge, enthusiasm and meeting with reps.
    Instead of a charge sheet, a bigger base discount and more variety.
    3. A massive morale boost is needed. Any hint of corporatism should be eradicated - esp. uniforms. Anything that helps boost camaraderie between branches should be encouraged. Give staff some shares from the off.
    4. If Waterstones would buy more books firm sale, they could get a bigger discount themselves and pass this on to customers; but not through horrible money off stickers, but by a substantial loyalty card discount. If you don't want customers to be motivated solely by price, don't scream about it inside branches. It's like an admission of defeat. Let's just talk about books, books, books - with the quiet understanding that there will be a whopping discount at the till through the loyalty card.
    5. New carpets.
    6. 'If you like X, you'll love Y - here's a sample chapter for your ereader.' You could require a first chapter from publishers of new books that could be given out on printed paper or digitally to curious browsers.
    7. Since the future MD had said you're understocked, might as well blow the budget right now ;-)
    8. The website should be branch and review focused.

    Sorry to rabbit on...

  4. I'm so happy that Waterstone's has a new owner. It would have been a tragedy if a chain with so many viable, profitable branches went under because of the ineptitude of HMV.

    Waterstone's has been going in the wrong direction for years, trying to beat Amazon and Tesco on their own territory - a game they could never win. What they should have been doing is going in the opposite direction, developing the USPs of high street bookselling - range, events and recommendations from real people.

    During the last few years I've visited of number of branches of Waterstone's and it's been heartbreaking to see how bland they've become, with predicatable promotions and dull POS.

    There is a big question mark over whether a man who is currently selling sand to the Arabs (i.e full priced books to the well-off) can save a national chain with so many loss-making stores, but I'm encouraged by his determination to restore local autonomy and trust his managers to know their local market. This alone won't be enough, of course. He'll need to develop a more proactive strategy for e-books, improve the dismal, fix the Hub, replace Phoenix and get more favourable terms from publishers. And that's only the beginning.

    I don't know if Waterstone's is fixable, but at least the chain will now survive for years rather than months.

  5. I'm really shocked at the negative changes in UK retail bookselling since ye olde days at Ottakar's, Chelmsford, but I really enjoyed this piece.

    I am guilty of buying most of my books from Amazon these days, even though we have a great independent bookstore here in Austin:

    Of course, I'm still angry at them for not even giving me an interview back in 2006 when I moved back to Austin and desperately needed a job. Their application at that time also prominently stated that they only paid $6.50 an hour for at least the first year or so. Which, to be honest, doesn't make me want to support them that much. If they're such a part of the local community, they should treat their employees with dignity and provide a living wage, health insurance, and other benefits. Yeah, they're Austiny and weird, but they're still ultimately about profit.

    Unfortunately, there is no way around that, and the Waterstone's and HMVs and Sainsbury's and Russian millionaires of the world don't make it any easier.

    My favorite bookstore in Austin is BookWoman: Unfortunately, they had to move out of their central Austin location because of rising rents (they used to be a mere four blocks from my house), but they're still convenient, have fantastic events, and are doing very important work for women's rights in Texas - I need to go there more often. Thanks for the reminder!

  6. Thank you all for your comments, I knew this would strike a chord with many former colleagues!

    Ben and Steerforth, I could not agree more with your feedback and will pass it on to anyone who'll listen. Hopefully the new gang already have many of those things in mind.

    I understand utterly the convenience of shopping in a supermarket and online. But I believe there's room in the world for bricks and mortar shops too, if those who profess to care put their money where their mouth is.

  7. I left bookselling back in 2007 after a number of mostly very enjoyable years. Seeing the transition from Hammicks, Ottakars and then ultimately Waterstones the trend I noticed was towards greater centralization and corporate identity - unified message, “the consumer must know what to expect when he/she/it goes to one of our stores”. I always thought it was a pity that as the years went by we seemed to lose our identity as a store unique to the immediate local market, less able to merchandise and display how we thought was best suited to that market. That’s not to say that it was all bad as time went on, far from it; the intranet for instance was a great way to join the stores together and form a sense of community, not only within sections but also throughout the entire spectrum so we could all share ideas. Sadly that became less relevant when marketing became more centralized…
    I’ll admit now, although my boss suspected at the time, that I began to lose interest in my job – sell books using my growing knowledge of them - because I felt I wasn’t being given the tools to do it properly. Lists lists and more lists gradually overtook everything else and missed the point as far as I was concerned.
    Eventually my outside hobby business grew so I first went part time – never really felt comfortable or able to switch into casual part time mode – and then had to make a choice between my business and carrying on at the bookshop. Almost four years later I haven’t looked back and am thoroughly enjoying being a farmer. I still keep in touch with some of the guys from the store, an excellent team who were/are passionate about what they sell and have a genuine interest in their subject matter. I think this is something you’d only really get in a place where you’re all selling the same core product, in this case a book. Yes, there’s also wrapping paper etc but it’s not like a supermarket where everyone is selling loads of different products with little or no specialized knowledge about any of them. That’s not to say supermarket staff are thick, I’ve done it (although I am thick) and it’s a tough job, but the two types of stores are totally different and require very different types of sales staff.
    Living out in the sticks I thankfully have access to an independent bookshop nearby but I sometimes go to the branch I used to work in and hope to for years to come.
    I like to physically hold a paperback. Carrying it around in my coat and in the van, it’s nice to sit and read it while I’m waiting for something or if I get to sit down for a bit. I’ve read my book in the driving rain sitting in the field shelter, pinging about in a bus in Africa and many other weird and wonderful situations. I’d break an Ereader in minutes and being the luddite that I am even prefer to print some things out from the net and read them on paper. Great if Ereaders do it for you, I don’t get on with them at all. Sorry to end on a negative note and also for my dull nonsensical ramblings. Most of all though, thanks for another great blog.


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