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

History Teacher Urgently Required

£6720 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Nottingham: Randstad Education is...

Primary Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: ***KS1 & KS2 Teachers needed for ...

Primary Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: NEWLY QUALIFIED TEACHER? WE CAN HELP ...

Relationship Manager

£500 - £600 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Relationship Manager, London, Banki...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The No campaign has a classic advertising problem: they need to turn a negative into a positive

John Hegarty
 

August catch-up: genius of Apple, fools and commercial enterprises, and the Queen

John Rentoul
Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone