Wednesday, 9 July 2014

The Demise of Independent Bookshops

Is it coincidence, or inevitable in the current zeitgeist, that just before reading a request on the CRA website for "posts about independent booksellers and publishers" I saw that my local independent bookshop is closing. This is the reason they give: "Sadly, fast developing technology, changing buying habits and the domination of a few major retailers are ending the era of the independent bookshop. The local community has been displaced by the global community and has disempowered the High Street, and with it smaller ventures like our own."
I live in North West London. It's not what you might call a cultural desert. When I moved here (OK, it was twenty years ago) there were two local bookshops, in addition to the library. Within a couple of weeks there will be no bookshops at all. We have a WH Smith still flying the flag for books, but they offer a limited choice. I was recently told by a manager of a WH Smith Travel store that they can only stock my latest title, as they only sell the books that are in their bestseller charts. (Yes, you can work out the flaw in that logic too.) 
There are multiple responses to the demise of the indie bookshop. For the first time since records started, we had fewer than 1,000 independent bookshops six months ago, and the number has continued to reduce since then. I don't have an up-to-date figure, but it's not going to be an upward trend. To some extent this is one of many ramifications of a society increasingly dependent on the internet. It is a symptom of changing buying habits, reflected across our dying High Streets.
Are people reading less? Well, maybe not. In fact, it is reasonable to argue that ebooks make books far easier and cheaper to access, encouraging reading. So as long as authors are writing, and people are reading, does the disappearance of the physical bookstore matter? Of course it matters to the 'middleman' - the traditional publisher, with their teams of editors, proof readers, jacket designers, publicists, it matters to booksellers and distributors, and librarians. 
But what difference can it make to readers? Well, possibly quite a lot. 
I remember the excitement I felt on first entering a public library. I wanted to read every book in sight. The experience of looking at a screen isn't the same. You can't see walls of books with one sweep of your eyes, books you can reach out and touch, flick through, replace, against a background of books, books, and more books. 
I worry that if too few people buy physical books, they will cease to be financially viable to produce, and my children's children will never experience that visceral excitement of wanting to read every book they can see. 
Is this merely nostalgia, or are we losing something that helps to make human life precious?


Anonymous said...

Hi Leigh,

Our local bookstore (mostly secondhand, but a few new) is long gone.

But I admit that, for me, the advent of the kindle is a boon. I simply can't fit any more paper books in my house. In fact I have been advised to clear out a pile of them as well as assorted junk (sob) so I can have repair work carried out.

For voracious book-lovers like me, paper books are no longer really an option (though I make an exception for books I use for research as I find it impossible to find the reference I need without my paper page marker).

If I wanted to buy more paper books (and I do!), I'd have to buy next door's house as well and knock a door through, just for storage purposes.

Leigh Russell said...

Storage is a common problem. I gave away hundreds and hundreds of books when I converted to reading on my kindle app which I love... but I still can't stop buying books! I think you need a second house... Thanks for stopping by to share your views on this important issue, Geraldine. (Well, I think it's important. I suspect many people would disagree.)

Derek Thompson said...

I think we're so used to buying online, and people are so busy (or consider themselves so) that popping out at the weekend to a bookshop requires more effort than we're used to as consumers. All excuses, of course.

Ideally, an independent bookshop is one of the hubs of a vibrant and literate community. Depending on the size of the shop, that might require hosting events, connecting with literary events and being more than 'just a shop'.

I also think - and I'm biased here! - that independent bookshops could play a more dynamic role in supporting fledgling authors. The end of the Net Book Agreement was a serious blow to bookshops, and the lack of engagement with self-publishers and newbie authors generally is a serious blow to writers. said...

I still get a thrill everytime I enter a book shop or a library. The promise of all those stories yet undiscovered. I have used a kindle when travelling but for me it could never replace a real book. I love being surrounded by books at home and cannot imagine a time when I would not buy them

Leigh Russell said...

Yes, Derek, bookshops and authors should be mutually supportive. I've written before about my views on Waterstones promoting celebrities while excluding midlist authors. I understand it's a business decision to attract customers, but celebrity visits should be arranged as well as, not instead of, author visits. I think some self-published authors spoiled the relationship traditionally published authors had forged with Waterstones by being too keen on sales rather than simply engaging with customers, but I still can't understand the vision behind bookshops that don't support authors! I take it you are a 'fledgling author' yourself? Good luck!

Leigh Russell said...

Same here, changing-pages. There is a place for Ereaders as well as physical books. My concern is that if too few readers buy the latter, they will become financially untenable to produce. My own books sell in vast numbers as ebooks, but print sales are declining rapidly. This has all happened very quickly and it hits publishers hard. They need more sales to survive.

Leigh Russell said...

Thank you all for taking the time to comment.

Crybbe666 said...

Well, as the owner of an "indie" bookstore, I have an obvious bias in this discussion but I have to say that we have grown and changed over the years from being just a used bookstore to being a bit of a hub for creative people - we not only have author events and launches, we now have a display section for local artistic members of the community to show their works in a space that they normally wouldn't have access to. It helps bring a different kind of consumer into the store and helps people discover new things. It also helps that we are a book exchange as well, so for those who just want to read (and not store thousands of books), we are a godsend as well.

A Reader's Heaven

Leigh Russell said...

Hi Paul, I wish you were nearer. I'd love to visit your store. It sounds fabulous! Yes, like the little mammals and the dinosaurs, those who adapt survive. Good luck and continued success!