Independent bookshops: a ‘hypothetical extinction’?

By Freya Neason

Lisa Campbell (The Bookseller) writes that, according to the Booksellers Association’s annual membership figures, the number of independent bookshops in the UK has fallen for the eleventh year in a row. Not only is it clear that bookshops are suffering the effects of digitalisation  Polly Mosendz reports in The Atlantic that Amazon are dominating 65% of all book sales but initiatives such as ‘Independent Bookshop Week’ and the ‘Books are my Bag’ campaign indicate rising concerns about the health of our print culture. Why is the bookshop suffering? More importantly, why should we care?

Amazon offers a cheap, easy and convenient solution when it comes to purchasing books. Its ‘one-click’ policy allows customers to buy and receive the exact book within a few hours, while ten of their e-books amount to the same price, and weight, of one printed book. Can independent bookshops compete with this service?

An independent bookshop retailer has the ability to offer a carefully curated selection of titles. Owners can take chances on new and upcoming authors because they, unlike Amazon, can order just ten to fifteen copies of an author’s debut novel. Consequently, the publishing industry relies on these independent bookshops to secure sales of some of their lesser known, and potentially risky, authors. The stock contained within these bookshops is therefore not only limited to the current best sellers but boasts a plethora of literature, offering unique and rare titles. If the independent bookshop were to vanish from our high streets, so too would our range of choice.

Their involvement in the selection process enables booksellers to provide a tailor made recommendation service. Regular customer interaction supplies the bookseller with indispensable knowledge about the tastes and trends of its community which will influence the choice of future stock. This creates a far more personalised shopping experience which Amazon’s top suggestions  ‘customers who bought this item also bought…’  cannot match.

In this way, the independent bookshop provides more than just books and the interactions extend beyond those of retailer and customer. The presence of a bookshop works wonders for its local community, providing a hub of intelligent discussion and socialisation. Instead of sitting at home scrolling through Amazon’s ‘Best Sellers,’ a bookshop allows you to talk to other people; it offers books groups, baby classes, poetry readings and author events. It emphasises the social aspect of reading and thus prevents it from becoming a solitary and isolated activity.

Moreover, a bookshop offers a special experience which cannot be matched by online retailers. In The Bookshop Book, Jen Campbell describes how bookshops can also be ‘time machines, spaceships, story-makers, secret-keepers, dragon-tamers, dream-catchers, fact-finders and safe places.’ As all book lovers can attest; time flies when you’re in a bookshop, thumbing through the titles, trying to narrow down your purchases to a somewhat reasonable number.

The hypothetical extinction of independent bookshops, therefore, seems unlikely. Nevertheless, this good news shouldn’t engender complacency. It may require more effort, and a few more pennies, but buying books from independent bookshops will benefit authors, publishers and your local community.

On that note, if you ever find yourself in London looking for a good book, here are my top five independent bookshop recommendations:

Persephone Books ‘reprints neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers.’ All books cost £12. (59 Lamb’s Conduit Street)

Foyles boasts an enormous selection of books from best sellers through to more unusual titles. (Charing Cross Road, Bond Street, Westfield Stratford City, Royal Festival Hall, London Waterloo)

Gay’s the Word is a perfect example of an independent bookshop that offers a highly selective reading choice, publishing LGBT literature in an attempt to promote discussion about equality. (66 Marchmont St, Kings Cross) 

Gosh stocks graphic novels from around the world: ‘From translated European albums to mainstream superhero antics; vintage children’s books to contemporary graphic fiction; compulsively readable manga to cutting edge small press’. (1 Berwick St, Soho) 

Tales on Moonlane is a gorgeous children’s bookshop. An essential part of its local community, it offers young readers the opportunity to immerse themselves in the world of books. (25 Half Moon Lane, Herne Hill)

Photograph: Rob Walsh via Flickr

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