Jayne Dowle: Backing a bookshop in every town would be an easy vote-winner in troubled times

I HAVE a simple idea that crosses political and geographical boundaries, appeals to young and old alike and has very little to do with Brexit. The first political party which adopts it into their manifesto will surely be onto a winner. So what could it be, this idea with the potential to achieve all this?

Owners of Grassington's Stripey Badger bookshop James Firth, with his mum Linda Furniss.
Owners of Grassington's Stripey Badger bookshop James Firth, with his mum Linda Furniss.

A pledge to support a bookshop in every town. That’s it. I told you it was simple. However, a bookshop is much more than a straightforward retail outlet. It is a magical kingdom, a beacon on any row of shops, a venue to meet friends. And if it is a good bookshop, it will seem as if nothing bad can ever happen within its walls.

I get the feeling that this kind of sanctuary will be much needed in the coming months. What better time, then, to push for it on the agenda? There has certainly never been a more opportune moment in commercial terms.

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In a retail climate which seems to offer precious little hope or confidence, the independent bookselling trade reports a remarkable upturn.

Once-mighty booksellers such as Dillons, Borders and Ottakars have long-fallen victim to the mighty reach of Amazon and changing shopping habits, but independent bookshops are bucking the trend.

Last year, 15 new independents opened according to the latest figures from the Booksellers’ Association, bringing the number in the UK and Ireland up to 883.

These include the wonderfully-named Stripey Badger bookshop in the Yorkshire Dales village of Grassington, which is run as a family business with a coffee shop next door.

This marks an amazing turnaround in only a couple of years. In 1995, there were 1,894 independent bookshops in the UK and Ireland. By 2016, this number had more than halved to just 867 outlets.

Book lovers like me were reduced to seeking a fix in motorway service stations and supermarkets and picking over the remnants in mass-market stores such as The Works, where you might drop on a gem or end up sating your appetite with yet another cookery book or stationery set.

Nothing beats a proper independent bookshop with the latest hardback fiction and non-fiction books available to look at, plus a thoughtful and stimulating selection of modern stuff and classics and some comfy chairs to sit in.

As well as offering good news for both book-lovers and authors, this trend also gives us hope that our country is not turning into an arid cultural desert. I can only say this anecdotally, but I’d argue that this turnabout can, in part, be put down to the fact that people seem to be increasingly seeking real and authentic experiences.

I know that it is quick and convenient to order a book online and have it delivered next day, but nothing beats a proper browse. In a bookshop, you can actually turn all the pages of that long-anticipated new novel if you wish, rather than being presented with a teaser hand-picked by the publisher.

As I know from bitter – and money-wasting – experience, even a favourite author can disappoint from time to time. My bedside table is piled with books I wanted to like, but somehow didn’t. I feel sure that if I hadn’t been so hasty with the online ordering, I would have chosen something different instead.

Many of us avid readers have special memories of special bookshops. I seem to have measured out my life in them. I remember the heady excitement of opening an account at Blackwell’s in Oxford when I started university. A few years later, I would spend rainy office lunchtimes in Borders on Oxford Street in London, curled up on a beanbag reading my latest purchase in peace before heading back to work.

These were the days to enjoy books, not buy them as commodities. I was reminded of this only the other day in conversation with my 13-year-old daughter. She’s at that awkward age between children’s fiction and proper grown-up novels. In the last few months we’ve veered from Elisabeth Beresford’s The Wombles to John Boyne’s harrowing Holocaust story, The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas.

She’s looking in the library for inspiration, but I think what she would really like is the chance to poke about unhindered or without pressure and find something new and fresh to take her fancy.

This helps us to appreciate what independent bookshops have above other stores. Apart from books, of course, they offer a genuine shopping experience with customer service which will usually exceed expectations. If a book is not in stock, a good bookseller will order it in to be delivered as soon as possible, not shrug their shoulders and pretend to be suddenly fascinated by the workings of the till-roll.

A popular bookshop is a draw for all kinds of people – families, students, older shoppers, tourists and visitors. It is a magnet which pulls individuals together in a community, rather than repelling them out towards the mall or shopping centre. And it has the power to broaden horizons and raise aspirations.

For myriad reasons, we definitely need one in every town.