Tom Sutcliffe: Should we pay double to save the bookshop?

A civilized city without bookshops – or without enough bookshops – struck me as a contradiction in terms

Tuesday 24 November 2009 01:00

I fell into a cultural gloom a few months ago – one of those "what-have-we-come-to" melancholies that makes you feel like Matthew Arnold on a really bad day – listening to the shingle suck of a retreating tide. And what provoked this, as it turned out, slightly misplaced depression was the belated discovery that Border's and Waterstone's had both closed down Oxford Street branches.

My belief that one of London's main shopping streets was now a literature free-zone was a bit premature, but it didn't stop me taking those closures as a symptom of the dimming of the British intellect. A civilized city without bookshops – or without enough bookshops – struck me as a contradiction in terms. And then I realised why I'd only belatedly discovered that Borders and Waterstone's weren't where they'd once been. I hadn't visited them for months. Hypocrite lecteur seemed the appropriate phrase.

A bit later I had an even harsher lesson in the gap between my fantasy of erudite urbanism and the new reality. I went into my local bookshop, a characterful place run with bookish enthusiasm and offering just what a browser wants – something finely poised between order and clutter, so that there's always something unexpected in the corner of your eye.

I noticed that Richard Dawkins had published a new book and then noticed that the hardback price was £20 and hesitated. And then I went home and discovered that Amazon would deliver it to my door for £9.99. No wonder, really, that Amazon's share price recently topped what it was during the dotcom boom and that Borders was yesterday reported to be struggling for survival as a company. And if even a chain operation can't compete with Amazon's economies of scale what possible hope can there be for a small independent? How long before they require charitable status to operate at all?

Since then I've found myself wondering exactly how much of a premium I'd pay to keep that small bookshop in business. Because – all millennial gloom about cultural priorities aside -– it isn't easy to reconcile the book-liking bit of me (which wants a huge range of titles available at really cheap prices) with the bookshop-liking bit of me (which still loves to be surprised by an appetite I didn't know existed).

Bookshops aren't just a delivery system; they are, for the bookish, a specific delight in themselves. The social texture of my small bit of north London would, I think, be diminished if it was to close down. It would, to me at least, feel less civilized, less likeable, less a community. And yet £10.01 per volume seems quite a steep surcharge to pay for such virtues (automatically, of course, I take the heavily discounted price as the "true" one – and the RRP as a kind of con).

My guilt, in the instance I've given, was compounded by the fact that the real-world bookshop did much of the work of securing the sale – acting, in effect, as a walk-through interface which was far more seductive than Amazon's virtual shelving (this must happen a lot, given that finding what you don't know you're looking for is so much harder online).

So should online retailers pay a modest levy on their substantial profits to reward independent bookshops for drumming up their trade? Or should I bite the bullet and pay far more than I need to as a kind of entrance fee to those soothing spaces? Or do I just have to accept that a sizeable town without its own bookshop won't always be a slightly shaming anomaly – as would once certainly have been the case – but may come to be the norm? I do hope it's not the latter.

Party leaders' photo-ops were hardly a sin

I thought the Dean of Westminster Abbey was a little hoity-toity in rebuking Gordon Brown and David Cameron for having their photographs taken while inspecting the garden of remembrance. They weren't dancing topless through the wreaths after all, and since respect for the dead was the whole point of the images taken it hardly constituted the most cynical outrage.

At least the church is consistent in its disdain for photo-ops, though, judging from the pictures released of the Archbishop of Canterbury's meeting with the Pope. The one I saw was a side view, with the Pope behind his desk and the Archbishop in the visitor's chair, and it looked exactly like a chief executive calling in a junior branch manager for a friendly pep talk about falling figures. Had worldly calculations like pride and relative status played any part at all in the Archbishop's media advice a deal would have been struck to get both men on a more equal footing in some studiously neutral space. It offered mute testimony, I thought, that Rowan Williams' thoughts really are on higher things.

When gloomier is instinctively better

There is in all of us an odd, furtive desire that catastrophe should be as bad as possible. You can see the instinct at work in the media predictions of just how long vital bits of the Cumbrian road network are going to be out of service.

"Flood-hit towns could be cut off for months" reads one headline, a thrillingly gloomy prognosis that was easily outdone by the BBC's Nicola Pearson, in an excitable report on Workington's Calva bridge: "Of course it's going to take years to rebuild these bridges", she concluded. "Years"? "Of course"? In 55 BC Caesar bridged the Rhine in 10 days, using only local timber. A couple of years later he did it all over again in "a few days". He might have exaggerated a little, it's true, and he did have a massive workforce. But are we really saying that the Royal Engineers couldn't lash up something serviceable a little quicker, given the will? It took them just a week to build a bridge across the Nahr e Bughra canal in Helmand recently and that was in a place where people were actively trying to kill them.

If the Royal Engineers are too busy I'm sure there will be civilian contractors willing to tender for the job of putting in temporary crossings until permanent replacements are built. And if they won't do it you could commission James May to take on the challenge for a BBC documentary. If it takes months to restore communications to flood-hit towns it will be a sad commentary on our resourcefulness. If it takes years it will be an outright disgrace.

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