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Why I love bookshops (and why I'd forgotten that I do)

bookshopI may not show it, but I still care about bookstores

I took the kids to Waterstones in Basingstoke last week on Books Are My Bag day, timed to coincide with Super Thursday, when publishers release their big titles ready for the Christmas rush. It’s the first time I’ve been in there in months, which is crazy, as books really ARE my bag. I am continually reading books, talking about books, publishing books. I started my career as a bookseller. So why don’t I spend more time in bookshops now?

I puzzled over this and decided there were three reasons:

  1. My book-buying is almost exclusively digital now. I rarely buy print books from Amazon, unless they’re a gift I want to send direct. For my own reading, it’s Kindle all the way. If I had print copies of all the books I’ve downloaded over the last few years, we’d be forced to move to a bigger house with a dedicated book room (which is a fantasy of mine, but not likely to happen any time soon).
  2. I don’t spend much time in any shops any more. I’m not sure if this is symptomatic of the digital age, or just the natural reluctance to taking children shopping unless absolutely necessary. Now they’re a little older, though, I found it an absolute pleasure – all three of us happily browsing, then taking our purchases upstairs to Café Nero where we sat and completely ignored each other, absorbed in our new books. We will be doing this again.
  3. Books are really expensive. Now, this is controversial. As a publisher, I realize that nobody’s making vast profits here (well, not many, anyway). Books are expensive, risky things to produce, and you could easily argue that a £9.99 price point represents extraordinary value for the sustained intellectual pleasure or entertainment of a good book. But the fact is I’m used to Kindle prices now, and that’s hard for bookshops to beat when they have to pay rent and taxes.

But here’s the thing: I may not show it, but I still care about bookstores. And I can’t be the only one. What’s a bookseller to do, given all this, to get people like me through the door? The big industry-wide initiatives such as World Book Day and #booksaremybag are powerful tools, but the really successful bookshops don’t rely exclusively on these.

The most exciting aspect of bookshops for me and their single biggest strategic advantage over Amazon is their capacity for human connection: I’ve run one launch party at the wonderful independent bookstore Kesley’s in Haddington and I’m looking forward to another at Waterstones in Bristol next month. I’ve found booksellers more than happy to stock my books, which was one of my big worries as a micropublisher when I launched.

Owning the space in which authors engage directly with their readers is the killer USP of the bricks-and-mortar bookstores, and there are some really imaginative events out there. I loved the idea of Walthamstow’s pop-up bookshop ‘All You Read Is Love’ earlier this year, I love that Waterstones in Manchester run regular children’s story times on Sunday afternoons, including craft activities, I was impressed to note that Richard Booth’s Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye offers events that go way beyond author readings to include jazz piano lessons and printmaking workshops, and that's just in the next couple of months.

And I was delighted to read this morning, while drafting this blog, of a whole new strand of bookseller activity – publishing. Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath has just announced its own publishing list - Fox, Finch & Tepper – to publish books. (The name is a glorious amalgam of literary characters – according to owner Nic Bottomley “Tepper is a book that is not obvious, but it is brilliant, which is what we’re all about.”)

As an industry, bookselling is obviously dominated by the giant that is Amazon. But the imaginative, creative initiatives from its traditional rivals – both chains and independents - gives me hope that the future need not be monolithic. And having reminded myself of the sheer joy of being in a physical bookshop I have promised myself and my children that we won’t leave it so long next time.

Bookshops: use them or lose them, people.


Photo credit: Christopher Bulle, Lloyd's of Kew, Bookshop in West London (used under CC-BY licence)

Tags: books | bookshops

This entry was posted on 13 October 2014 at 16:00 and is filed under publishing. You can leave a response here.

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