Monday, 3 September 2012

Is the end nigh?

Whilst browsing in my local Waterstones recently I watched someone pick up a novel, read the back, look it up online on their phone, order it, then put the book back on the shelf and leave.
I mentioned this to an erstwhile colleague of mine from my stint working in the same shop in my student days. ‘Happens all the time’ she said ‘We’ve become a showroom for the internet’.

Now I’m no Luddite, and regularly use Amazon, but it’s a disconcerting thought that bookshops as we know them might become extinct in our lifetime.

Since 2006 the number of independent bookshops in the UK has fallen by nearly 500. That’s a third of the total. Of course, it’s impossible for these shops to survive in a publishing world that has been decimated by supermarkets piling high and selling the latest toss from the mind of Katie Price, or the new cookbook from one-man-culinary-juggernaut-and-occasional-drum-worrier Jamie (no need for a surname). It’s basic free-market economics.

But what about the rest of us who would like more choice than the 12 books the publishers and supermarket buyers have decided we’re worthy of? And how can any bookshop survive in a world where they are continually undercut by online giants operating without the wage and premises costs of those who have to deal with customers face to face in a shop?
That’s before we even consider the impact of e-books.

Since the decline and fall of Borders there is only one high-street chain still fighting. Waterstones are struggling, of that there is no doubt. The heady days of 3 for 2 are long gone, replaced with buy one get one half price. They have diversified into more games and electronics, and have given stationers Paperchase a new home since Borders disappeared. They try harder too, with creative table lay-outs and window displays, but now have noticeably less staff to guide potential customers. Another ex-colleague told me he dreads dealing with the increasing number of befuddled and downright nuts people who come into the shop now.
So what can they, and independent booksellers do?

It’s true they need to encourage more people in, and once in to spend, but to me it’s all about reminding readers that there is more out there than mass-produced pap – and more to buying a book than clicking a mouse.

A bookshop is a special place, somewhere quite unlike anywhere else. It is a repository of wonders, somewhere that can change your life, unique.

I hope the iconic ones will survive - Hatchards and Foyles in London, and Booksoup in LA, for example, but it is telling that Village Voice in Paris closed at the end of July 2012, after 30 years due to online competition and e-book sales.

I don’t want to look back in a few years and wish I could go into a bookshop again. I’m going to do my best to resist the urge to use Amazon all the time, and at least sometimes go in, browse, enjoy the look, smell and ambience of the shop, and the delights on offer, and spend my money in there.

It’s got to be worth a couple of extra quid to save something wonderful that could otherwise end up a distant memory, hasn’t it?

Reading: What a carve up! by Jonathan Coe
Listening to: Shootenanny by Eels
Watching: Breaking Bad, Season 5

No comments:

Post a Comment