IF you still have an independent bookshop, cherish it. Ours in Barnsley closed some years ago now and I still miss it. Not just for the fact that it sold books, but because it was a kind of beacon at the top of the Arcade. Its presence said “this town is still trying”.
Independent bookshops are a little like bees. When they start disappearing, you know there is something seriously wrong with the local environment. And you may be shocked to learn that there are less than 1,000 of them left across the whole of the UK, according to recent figures from the Booksellers’ Association.
When ours closed down, it seemed to set off a cascade of shops going under. Look down the Arcade now and with some very honourable exceptions – cafés, a vintage shop, a wool and crafts shop – it is a sad parade of “To Let” signs.
I wish I was brave enough to throw caution to the wind, buy a load of stock and set up shop. The business rates terrify me though, as they terrify so many independent retailers, whatever they are selling.
If you are lucky enough to still have one in your town, this is the ideal time to pop in and say hello. It’s Independent Bookshop Week. Ostensibly, this is the Booksellers Association’s marketing campaign for independent booksellers. However, it’s more than a way to flog a few books. At its heart, it is about putting bookshops at the centre of a healthy high street, highlighting the positive benefits of shopping locally and helping to encourage an active sense of community.
Indeed, independent bookshops are more than just a place to buy books. They are places where people can find inspiration in a retail world which all too often is obsessed with parting us from our cash. And this includes the big booksellers. These outlets seem to have more BOGOFs and deals going on than your average supermarket. I don’t know about you, but my bookshelves groan under the evidence of novels I have bought but never read, but only bought because it seemed like a better deal to get three for the price of two.
Although a successful bookshop should always exist to operate commercially, its strength is in its ability to offer us alternative views. It should be a place where you can go in expecting to buy one thing and come out with something quite different. In a world where so many retail activities – purchasing food for example – are fraught and stressful, a good bookshop offers a safe haven where you can look at your leisure. It’s like a step back into a world we had almost forgotten about. There’s that thing called personal service for a start.
When our bookshop was open, I used to take the children in regularly. They were younger then, of course, but actually being able to see and open the books brought them alive. It’s rather like money. My two don’t seem to understand the concept of cash unless they can actually see it in front of them with their own eyes. I know our groaning bookshelves at home, and the library at school have a part to play. However, when they want to choose their own reading matter, it means much more to actually go to a shop and have a look.
My daughter’s much-pestered for acquisition of a Kindle e-reader for Christmas proves this. She must have picked it up all of five times since she got it. At nine, perhaps Lizzie is not yet old enough to appreciate the convenience of e-books people enthuse about. Personally, I spend enough time in front of a screen as it is. The last thing I want to do when I switch off is to read yet another one. What my daughter does appreciate though is the line of favourite books arranged on the new bookshelf in her bedroom. Like her mother, she takes pleasure in seeing her collection lined up in front of her. Unlike her mother, she hasn’t quite got round to arranging it by colour co-ordination and subject matter.
She loves to talk me through her titles though. She understands that nothing – not even Amazon Prime and its next-day delivery – beats a real live, face-to-face chat about books with someone who has a real passion. And although reading is essentially a solitary pleasure, it needs context, the exchange of opinions and views. Bitchy online reviews posted anonymously on Amazon do more harm than good, as any novelist will tell you.
Now I won’t knock Amazon for its convenience and speedy delivery times. However, it can’t be a coincidence that the 20 years since Amazon was launched on an unsuspecting public has seen more independent bookshops close in the UK than ever before. It sells millions, if not billions of books worldwide every week.
What can we do in the face of this? Well, you can take a conscious decision – next time there’s a book you fancy – to reach for your nearest independent bookshop instead of reaching for the keyboard. If you can find one, that is.