Tom Hodgkinson: 'Instead of helping, we merely retweet'


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The Independent Online

Woe to the small business. "Mark what ills the scholar's life assail," Dr Johnson moaned in the 18th century, about the unenviable lot of the writer. But what about the ills that assail the retailer's life? I suppose we can't say we weren't warned.

Before starting up our small bookshop and events venue about 18 months ago, we had our local pub landlord round for dinner, and asked for his advice. "You do realise," he warned, "that you will be working your socks off [did he use the word socks?], every day, 14 hours a day, earning nothing, while everyone around you gets paid: staff, landlord, council, suppliers, accountants, rubbish collection services, window cleaner, VAT people and all?"

This seemed like rather a gloomy prediction and I'm afraid I discounted it at the time. But it has turned out to be strictly true. Everyone else must get paid before the owner of the business.

Other ills assail us. Take Twitter. Could Twitter help us? Everyone said so. And I believed them. I spend more time "tweeting", as I believe the expression goes, than I really ought. It's an enjoyable distraction, I suppose. But I have noticed that Twitter is all about inaction and self-perception. If I send a tweet, for example, to announce a course in the ukulele or the history of essay writing, our followers will enthusiastically retweet it and "favorite" it (dontcha hate those American spellings?). They will append comments along the lines of: "This looks amazing!" or "Would so love to do this course!" But will they actually get out their credit card and make a booking? No, of course not.

Twitter is first and foremost a device for attempting to manipulate the way other people see you. So if I "favorite" a tweet about essay writing, it sends a message out to my followers that I am a very literary person, without me having to do anything about it.

It is the same with that curse of Twitter, the charity retweet. Instead of actually raising a finger to help someone in distress, I merely retweet someone else's call for help and – hey presto! – everyone thinks I am a really, y'know, caring kind of guy.

Something about the form itself affects the way people talk on Twitter, and this is often with a sort of breathless good cheer. No negative thoughts allowed! You will find that the words "excited", "incredible" and "amazing" pop up with more regularity than on an episode of Britain's Got Talent, even in retail tweets. For example: "So, so excited about our incredible new range of amazing pencils!!!!!" All right, calm down. I have fantasised about tweeting along the lines of "Only mildly stimulated by our very ordinary new courses," but I'm afraid I lost courage.

Crime is another problem for the small business. Over the summer we had our windows smashed in. Just last week we bought ourselves a lovely new laptop, the better to tweet with. Over the weekend the laptop was stolen from the shop. Luckily, my 12-year-old son was at hand to help. Using the "find my iPhone" app, this junior detective was able to trace the exact location of the computer – it had ended up in an Oxford college – and we soon figured out who the culprit was. My son received a copy of volume one of Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy for his pains.

Despite the various ills we have been assailed with, we soldier on. The upside of running a retail outlet is the freedom it gives you. We are free to sell pretty much anything we like, to put on a talk with whoever we like, to teach whatever we like, to decorate the place in a manner of our own choosing, and to employ whoever we like. It is a democratic space: the door is open and anyone can wander in; by the same token, troublemakers can be banned.

And without wanting to sound too Twitterish, there is an enormous sense of satisfaction when a punter tells you how much they have enjoyed learning the ukulele or calligraphy or ancient philosophy or whatever it might be. Or that they have met interesting people in our shop. It is also satisfying to sell a good book: to see a customer walk out with a copy of The Condition of the Working Class in England by Engels under their arm is strangely pleasing.

Obviously the right thing would have been to dispense with bricks and mortar and just sell stuff online. That is the sensible, utilitarian approach to retail.

But our approach, I'm afraid, is more romantic, more fun. A real shop that serves real tea, and where you can have real conversations, can, in actual fact, never be replaced by the digital world, and that's why I believe that shops such as ours have a future.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'