As long as reading survives, so will bookshops

The small independent bookshop has been one of the great joys of my life, and its slow disappearance a great sadness

Share

It’s not a great time to be a bookshop.

The business of selling print books from retail premises is being eroded from a number of directions. First, there is the rise of ebooks, which now account for as much as 50 per cent of sales in some genres of fiction. No bookshop benefits from that. Second, there is the continuing existence of heavy discounting in the sale of books by supermarkets. No small bookseller can match the Tesco price of the new Dan Brown, and what might have tided them over the year makes very little difference to them. Third, even print books are not bought from premises any more – online sales of print books make up a third of the total. Finally, there is the debated and disputable question of whether the reading of books is on the decline. Does a YouTube generation have the mental habits to sustain itself through a long novel?

The sales of print books are declining and will go on declining. So far, total sales in 2013 are down 5.6 per cent on 2012, and booksellers may well be hit harder than this under the additional pressure of Amazon and others. Chains of bookshops are being closed down; the neighbourhood bookseller is calling it a day and being turned into a coffee shop. It is not a great moment, you might think, for Independent Booksellers Week, which ends today.

The small independent bookshop has been one of the great joys of my life, and its slow disappearance a great sadness. There was the lovely one in Broomhill in Sheffield, with enthusiastic readers at the till. I remember one engaging me in passionate discussion of Terence Kilmartin’s Proust translation in 1983. Then there were the magisterial Blackwells in Oxford and Heffers in Cambridge, still both there – great labyrinthine wells of steadily more obscure stock. And London bookshops – I almost miss the old Foyles, with the impenetrable methods of paying, the shelves of stock which still bore the prices of the early 1970s. I do miss Colletts, the revolutionary bookshop on Charing Cross Road where you bought Soviet-subsidised editions of Marxist classics in curiously limp bindings, like blotting paper.

A lot has gone. But there are still some wonderful independent bookshops getting through things. The magnificent Gay’s the Word is the last gay bookshop in the UK, and is just a superb community resource. Try replacing that with next-day deliveries from Amazon.

I like a proper community bookshop. My nearest one, Clapham Books, makes a point of indicating the books of local authors and selling local history, and there are still a good number around doing a similar job. Best of all is John Sandoe off the King’s Road – where I buy most of my books – the staff can actually recommend what new novels are worth reading and tell you what the best history of the Congress of Vienna is off the top of their heads. They seem to be doing all right.

Clearly, the bookshops that will survive are the ones that are a pleasure to be in, where some expert knowledge is offered, and not the ones that just treat books as another commodity. Some Waterstones are great; some are dismal. You can come across a keen reader who recommends a brilliant first novel. Or you can have the experience I had, of asking whether Paul Theroux’s book about V S Naipaul was in print and being asked if I could spell the names of both authors. It’s not a crime, not knowing who Naipaul is, but the bookshop there is giving no reason not to shop at Amazon.

The bookselling trade will survive, but has diminished and will diminish further. What will disappear, I think, is the high street shop that offers no personal expertise to the customer. What will survive, here and there, is the friendly, efficient, informed bookshop. Their survival can be helped by a single decision by bookbuyers. If you can afford to, don’t buy books at discount. Paying full price is what you have to do, if you don’t want a high street consisting entirely of cafés and charity shops.

 

Madeleine McCann matters, but so do others

 The Madeleine McCann case is being reopened with great fanfare, and I hope some conclusion is reached for the sake of the parents. These cases of child abduction by strangers are extremely rare, which makes it still more surprising that other cases, just as traumatic, don’t seem to attract the same interest, or concern from police and media. In 1990, a baby, Ames Glover, was stolen by a stranger on the streets of Southall. The abduction was given very little publicity. The police never identified any real suspects. In the years following, hardly any media coverage has attended the case, and Ames’s mother, Shanika Ondaatjie, has gone through the long agony alone. In 2009, she was interviewed in the press and said: “I have lived in the hope that one day I will find out where he is or what became of him.” She said it to the Hounslow Gazette, her local paper. No one else was interested.

The abduction of Madeleine McCann in Portugal was newsworthy. So was the abduction of the toddler Ben Needham from Kos in 1991. Like them, Ames Glover was probably stolen by a stranger and has never been found. What makes his case so negligible and theirs so heartrending? It couldn’t be that two of them were blond and blue-eyed, and Ames Glover a small black child, could it? The heart goes out to Ames Glover’s mother, who has, piled on top of her decades of suffering, the apparent assurance that nobody much cares.

Twitter: PhilipHensher

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Experienced Bookkeeper - German Speaking - Part Time

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm of accountants based ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a financial services c...

Ashdown Group: Field Service Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum + car allowance and on call: Ashdown Group: A succes...

Recruitment Genius: Sales & Marketing Co-Ordinator

£15000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Well established small company ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A woman runs down the street  

Should wolf-whistling be reported to the Police? If you're Poppy Smart, then yes

Jane Merrick
 

Voices in Danger: How can we prevent journalists from being sexually assaulted in conflict zones?

Heather Blake
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk
Nepal earthquake: One man's desperate escape from Everest base camp after the disaster

Escape from Everest base camp

Nick Talbot was sitting in his tent when the tsunami of snow and rock hit. He was lucky to live, unlike his climbing partner just feet away...
Adopting high fibre diet could dramatically cut risk of bowel cancer, says study

What happened when 20 Americans swapped diets with 20 Africans?

Innovative study in the US produces remarkable results
Blake Lively and 'The Age of Adaline': Gossip Girl comes
of age

Gossip girl comes of age

Blake Lively is best known for playing an affluent teenager. Her role as a woman who is trapped forever at 29 is a greater challenge
Goat cuisine: Kid meat is coming to Ocado

Goat cuisine

It's loved by chefs, ethical, low in fat and delicious. So, will kid meat give lamb a run for its money?
14 best coat hooks

Hang on: 14 best coat hooks

Set the tone for the rest of your house with a stylish and functional coat rack in the hallway
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?