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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor’s Letter: The Easter message

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

There is far too much sexism in the UK - but a point scoring system against other countries won't help to tackle it

Victoria Richards
How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit