Battle of the book-buyers

In the age of Amazon and the chains, the small independent bookshop is at risk. But is this necessarily a bad thing? Here, a passionate advocate of the local bookshop, and an equally fierce opponent, battle it out
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The Independent Culture

SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL

SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL

'Has my mother read this one?" It was 24 December. The young man was home for Christmas and just starting his shopping. Happily, we could help out: his mother had indeed read the latest Philippa Gregory in paperback but there was, hallelujah, a new hardback. And nothing signals filial devotion quite so clearly as a good sturdy hardback.

Christmas Eve is a panicky time and he was close to desperate, so for once the strictest rule could be bent. But in general we'd go to the stake rather than tell one customer what another is reading. I learnt that from the great Paula Barnett, who started the little shop where I work as a wild gamble 20 years ago, in a Sussex village where no such thing had ever existed but which now treasures it.

You realise just how much when customers come in to order books they have already seen, often at bargain prices, in one of the big shops in town. They could have saved themselves time and money, but they know that using a tiny place like ours keeps us in business. It's a mutual endeavour: we respect their privacy and try to reward their loyalty. If they order the latest Harry Potter from us, for example, we can't afford to offer them a Tesco-sized discount, but we can give them a personal book-token instead.

They are not mad, these people: they are enlightened. A local bookshop is a refuge, a shelter from vile weather when waiting for the dentist, a source of comfort and delight. There's a chair for the weary, a box of board-books for toddlers to mangle and even sometimes - should you hit a signing or a festive day - a drink or two. Here, you're welcome to stay as long as you like whether or not you buy anything, for our only other rule is that people should be greeted and then left unbothered forever, until, and often beyond, closing time. They can read everything and even take notes: recipes are jotted down and once a woman sat and copied a long poem from an anthology. There is, quite simply, nowhere else like it.

People come in with all kinds of questions. One day a chap brought in a mildewed copy of Wuthering Heights that he'd fished out of a skip. Was it worth anything? Not, sadly to us - but he seemed genuinely intrigued by the notion that he might go home and read it. And this morning an old lady came in who'd been reading about people who listen to bluegrass. What was this bird, she wondered. Only when she'd consulted our useful encyclopaedia did she believe that it was, in fact, a kind of American folk music.

Mostly, of course, people know at least roughly what they want, though sometimes they offer only slender hints - "a pink book I loved as a child" was quite a tricky one. Others have all the details, including the 10-digit number known as the ISBN. Some want advice on a textbook, a cosy read, a present for a difficult friend. If we don't have it, we'll find it - be it the pop-up Kama Sutra or the new translation of Don Quixote, both of which came in this week.

Some just want a literary fix: "a meaty biography and a bit of a yarn" as one described his reading needs recently. William Hague's Pitt supplied the first and an Alexander McCall Smith the second. Incidentally, that author's titles do cause trouble: The Kalahari Typing School for Men recently became confused with shellfish and was ordered as "something about calamari": it's only one step away from the woman who wanted "Commander Cornelius's Violin").

Against competition from the big boys at Waterstone's and the virtual giants of Amazon, we survive almost because of our size. Half the battle is wanting to help and doing our damnedest. When someone rang from London in search of Nigel Nicolson's Portrait of a Marriage, apparently out of print, it transpired that nobody had known how to spell the author's name (spelling is often a problem: try ordering Daisy Ashford's The Young Visiters and see how far you get). We were able to get the Nicolson delivered to him the next day. One woman rang us needing two specific books as presents. It was 23 December, all five big shops in town had failed her and, what is worse, had shown no interest in her dilemma. It was, they said, too late. Actually, it wasn't. We had a delivery the next day and we got them.

My favourite customer this Christmas bought a little book called Extraordinary Chickens. She knew she'd got it right. "My son," she confided happily as she left the shop, "likes nothing so much as snuggling up in bed with a nice new chicken book."

Sue Gaisford

Barnett's Bookshop, High Street, Wadhurst, East Sussex. Tel: 01892 783566

BIG IS BEST

There is a curious English fascination with the Small Shop. Whatever we feel like buying in this island, there is an inbred supposition that it will be somehow better if it is chosen from a smaller list, preferably a grubbier list, a list that has been written in purple pen on jaundiced paper and tacked up behind the counter with last year's Sellotape and this year's tobacco smoke infusing its very core.

Fortunately, with most industries, this tendency is either forborne at the risk of greater prices (see butchers, bakers, small smelly pubs with dogs in that like crisps) as the eccentricity of a bygone age, or stamped out by ruthless competition (see greengrocers, cobblers, milliners et al) and subsumed into the greater marketplace.

Except bookshops. The Small Bookshop can't specialise, not really. You can walk down the high street of any town in Britain and find at least one shop called something like "Mad About Cats", that only sells things that look a bit like a cat to mad people, but a bookshop is barred from becoming single-issue because there isn't one available. You might find somewhere that only sells travel books, but they're competing with Waterstone's down the road which sells travel books and magazines and fiction and all the other things that you might think of buying when buying a travel book, so they've got a struggle on their hands. Instead, small bookshops end up as quaint microcosms of what a bookshop shouldn't be with bizarre eccentricities thrown in for good measure.

It is an unbending rule that you can - and will - get lost in even the smallest bookshop; the section you want will be skulking behind a trompe-l'oeil corner sandwiched between Philosophy and Military History, which - disturbingly - is the best stocked shelf of the lot. If you do succeed in locating the right section, you find that in addition to having an odd fascination with bulky cardigans and a beard that puts you in mind of a hunger-striker devouring a stoat, the proprietor is a zealous and evangelistic pedant and has filed a work you feel could be quite happily accommodated under "Sociology" as "Early Social Ethics" - located as far as possible from its more general cousin.

You should certainly never go as far as to enquire whether they have the book you want. The sort of person who decides their vocation lies in the small bookshop shies from cataloguing as an arcane and indecent art, faintly associated with witchcraft. Your timid request will usually result in a guided tour of the premises accompanied by a chronological commentary and the odd mucoid "hrrmph", which can only end with the wrong book by the wrong author being proffered in the manner of a mute but eager sacristan. As they have either fetched a ladder or subjected their arthritic knees to immense stress to obtain this tome, your protests notwithstanding, profound guilt usually prompts you to make a purchase. I've often fallen victim to this scam, which is why I possess at least one geometry textbook from the 1930s and a very amateur work on winemaking which subsequently proved to be either misinformed or a practical joke in poor taste.

Despite these obvious drawbacks, such emporia retain a customer base drawn from the terminally bored; adventurers with cricked necks who continue to quest with grim determination for the grail, and make unsubstantiated excuses for their masochism.

Worst of all is the second-hand bookshop which - by definition - sells books that people don't want. Second-hand bookshops follow all of the above laws with the added bonuses of being decorated entirely in brown and smelling as though an elderly and incontinent cat owns the freehold. Second-hand bookshops pride themselves on their Ancient, Justified and Hermetic status, which is why all the labels are written in hieroglyphs; only initiates and licentiates are permitted to hold fellowship, and expecting them to have something you want is infra dig. You'll notice that regular communicants speak in tangential maxims and never mention books once; careful observation reveals that the code is akin to the Four Noble Truths, which is why they only ever sell four distinct books, at least two of which are battered copies of a Kingsley Amis no one has ever heard of. Presumably careful scholarship and meditation will eventually lead to the comprehension that all books are in essence the same book, and that only by not reading it will you understand reading.

Soulless, open-plan, and far too well lit it may be, but give me Borders any day.

Jamie Douglass

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