Boyd Tonkin: Books on the borders of a retail breakdown

The Week In Books
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The Independent Culture

One of the world's greatest booksellers has just announced her retirement.

Since Oprah Winfrey's farewell tour as chat-show host will run all the way until September 2011, authors and publishers still have plenty of potential windows to display their wares. Oprah, by the way, continues to prove more ambitious and discerning in her book-club picks than Richard & Judy became in latter days. Her current choice is Say You're One of Them: a subtly crafted and deeply affecting volume of stories about children in Africa from the Nigerian writer, and Jesuit priest, Uwem Akpan. He gathered a sheaf of glowing reviews; for Alastair Niven in The Independent, "This astonishing first collection... marks the arrival of a major writer".

Yet the celeb-obsessed pachyderms of the British book trade would no doubt dismiss such plaudits as the affectation of "snobbish" elitists. They can sing no other tune. Short stories, about suffering African kids who have so far failed to attract the voracious eye of Madonna Ciccone, by an unpublished Nigerian God-squadder? Imagine the withering reaction among most chain buyers: bring me Katie Price, pronto. Not for the first time, Oprah's courage and passion light a lamp for literature. The club ought to outlive her show.

The glaring absence of that courage and passion from mainstream bookselling in Britain makes it hard to shed many tears over the troubles of high-street behemoths. By the time this article appears, the Borders UK chain may well have sunk into administration after a nightmare fortnight that culminated in the refusal of two major publishers to supply it, and the suspension of its website. No one can rejoice at the possible collapse of a 45-strong network of shops. In spite of Borders' very 1990s preference for showcasing chart DVDs, glossy mags, pricey coffee and fancy stationery over the selling of actual books, they did in many locations offer stock of respectable variety and depth. Customers and staff deserve a rescue package soon.

Recent figures indicate that the share of book sales going to the high-street chains is in sharp decline, squeezed on one hand by those even narrower book choices in supermarkets themselves, and on the other by the ever-rising internet. In fact, the proportion of UK book retailing taken by online purchases now stands – at around 15 per cent – at a lower level than many observers might have predicted. Amazon has not yet flooded the marketplace.

In bookselling, as everywhere else, the demand for a high-value personal service in the age of automated transactions will surely increase. Already, brave – some would say foolhardy – literature-loving souls persist in a heroic defiance of economic rationality by starting independent bookshops. The estimable magazine Slightly Foxed recently took over a site in Kensington. Earlier this year, I went to speak at the relatively new Woodstock Bookshop in Oxfordshire and found, in a compact haven crammed with good books chosen with taste and flair, just that dream of the perfect browsable space that so many readers cherish. This week, too, comes news of a fearlessly bolshie new opening in Bloomsbury: a shop in Woburn Walk (much favoured by location scouts for BBC costume drama) to be called To Hell With Books. And I would happily spend a large chunk of any weekend travelling the world in words via the country-by-country design of the shelving in Daunts.

Look at Daunts' five locations, though, and the limits to this boutique model hit you like a wet towel: Chelsea, Marylebone, Holland Park, Hampstead, Belsize Park. Will proper bespoke bookselling soon dwindle into an amenity for the residents of affluent suburbs, smart urban centres, and well-heeled campus, market, spa or seaside towns? That would be a howling shame. Swindon needs its venturesome indies just as much as Bath - if not more so. Having your own Oprah on the high street should not be a privilege of wealth.

P.S. To say that Franco-American cultural relations remain stuck in the deep freeze would hardly cause a stir. The Simpsons have just helped thicken the ice by enlisting Carla Bruni and Nicolas Sarkozy for a dose of animated ridicule. Yet signs of a thaw do surface from time to time, and one will emerge this Sunday as Figaro Magazine holds its annual book festival in Paris. It will mark its 25th birthday by awarding a grand prix to New York-born novelist (and Independent reviewer) Douglas Kennedy, for a body of fiction that makes him “the foreign author who has had most impact on the French literary landscape over the past 25 years”. Kennedy’s renown has made him the top-selling transatlantic novelist in France; to Figaro Magazine, he is “the most French and the most popular of American authors”. Vive the spirit of Franklin and Lafayette!

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