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

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

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform