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
  • @PhilipHensher

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