Liz Hoggard: Support a local bookshop this Christmas

The bookshop, like the library, is the great democratic space

Tuesday 08 December 2009 01:00

My finger is hovering. I could do all my Christmas shopping in one fell swoop. They'll even wrap the damn things for me and add a personalised message. If I haven't a clue what present to get a friend, they'll remind me what I bought him last year. Or helpfully suggest a few ideas of their own ("People who bought Bat for Lashes frequently buy Ladyhawke").

Yesterday was manic Monday, the busiest online shopping day of the year. The day when internet shoppers spend £417m – without talking to another single individual. It's hardly surprising us chaotic, time-poor types fulfil our desires by computer. Yesterday a new survey revealed that impatient Britons last an average of just eight minutes and 22 seconds before they snap if kept on hold by a call centre, or waiting for an assistant.

I am the original Christmas refusenik. I seethe as I get tangled up in yards of glittery paper. The man hours I lose trying to find the end of the sellotape could fuel a small Third World country. And yet somehow I can't bring myself to surrender completely to the Amazon elves, slaving away in warehouses across the country.

Shouldn't I at least touch the present (give it an honorary blessing, if you like) before dispatching it to a loved one? Now we can communicate so quickly with digital media, it saddens me that letters and parcels have lost a their significance. Of course Amazon, with its standardised brown packages, makes our lives easier. But isn't there something fundamentally worrying about a fully-automated shopping colossus that calls itself a "fulfilment centre"?

Yes they slash the prices on books and DVDs for us. But at whose expense? The poor authors – and small independent presses – who scarcely make a profit. And then there's the thorny issue of censorship. An online retailer with over 100 million customers can choose which books are stocked – and which banned. If you run a warehouse with a roof the size of eight football pitches, do you fill it with promising first-time novelists – or the latest work by Gordon or Nigella?

Independent book and record shops matter. Last week first-time novelist Evie Wyld won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for best work of literature by a UK or Commonwealth writer aged 35 or under. It wouldn't have happened, Wyld insists, without the support of independent booksellers. My local bookshop, Review in Peckham (where Evie still works part-time two days a week) personally shifted 250 copies. Roz, the owner, spent most of the summer pressing first-editions into our hands.

Her shop is the linchpin of the community. She arranges author readings, meals, children's groups and a full-blown literary festival. In a neighbourhood that's both very wealthy (editors and designers snap up the bijoux Georgian houses) and extremely challenged (Southwark is still one of London's poorest boroughs), the bookshop, like the library, is the great democratic space. So – much as I'd like to press that button and get the hardback of Wolf Hall for a thrilling £7.97 or the box set of Pulling (yes, series one and two) for £12.98 – I can't. I have to open my door, walk across the road to a proper shop – and pay full price. Otherwise the things I love won't exist anymore.

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