The enduring appeal of a bookshop

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Bookshops are enchanting places – ones where readers get lost and escape, sometimes even losing the rest of their day. Armchair Books in Edinburgh is a favourite of mine. The shop itself is small and crammed with second-hand books on shelves from floor to ceiling. Full of nooks and alcoves, it is laden with paperbacks, poetry and antique as well as rare editions. It can be found in the historical Old Town of Edinburgh, and its unusual charm is certainly in character with its surroundings. At the other end of the UK is another particularly unique bookshop.

The Catching Lives Charity Bookshop is situated in Canterbury and, after walking through the wonky post-box red door into the crooked, thatched building there are shelves stacked high with donated and second-hand books. A selection of books are carefully wrapped in brown paper with a short description for readers to pick something new. Around the corner, a small staircase leads to an attic room, where books on subjects from local history to The Rolling Stones can be found. Catching Lives is a local charity that aims to support homeless and rough sleepers in Canterbury and East Kent, and this brilliant bookshop helps such a great cause.

Amongst the dust and yellowed pages are bookshops with character, run by people who are passionate about what they sell and the causes they support. Like all bookshops and many small businesses, however, they are threatened by the substantial competition of Amazon. Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller is an engaging and vibrant read, delving into the author’s life as the owner of a second-hand bookshop, (aptly named The Book Shop) in Wigtown, Scotland. Not only is it witty and entertaining, but it provides an insight into the challenges of running an independent bookshop, especially with such competition from Amazon.

Bythell describes his own frustrations with Amazon, symbolised by his own kindle, shot, and attached to a wooden shield mount on the wall of his bookshop. He describes the daily battles with Amazon, from customers comparing his costs in store, to using AbeBooks to sell online stock, a website that has been owned by Amazon since 2008. It is evident from reading The Diary of a Bookseller that the threat Amazon poses to bookshops is substantial, and one which appears to heighten as the company advances.

‘Among the dust and yellowed pages are bookshops with character, run by people who are passionate about what they sell and the causes they support.’

The Diary of a Bookseller, however, was published in 2017, and while still significantly relevant it is unable to consider the effects of recent years on small, independent bookshops. Amanda Truman, in an article for The Guardian, makes the excellent point that since Covid-19 and lockdown, people [have become] much more aware of their local community… [wanting] to shop local and support independents. That works in a bookshop’s favour.’

As Truman says, despite the various lockdowns having a detrimental impact on high street shops, they have also emphasised the importance of the local community to everyone, so a renewed interest in purchasing from your local bookshop helps it to remain open. This is hopeful for bookshops, bookshop owners and readers alike, as it allows for a future in which they remain open. Bythell echoes this sentiment, and highlights the necessity for everyone to understand that ‘if they want bookshops to survive, they have to support them’.

Ultimately, bookshops are fantastic places that many take enjoyment from exploring, discovering and browsing. Not only are they practical but they also provide feelings of delight upon stumbling across a new book or a brilliantly situated shop. They are, however, threatened by Amazon and its dominance over small businesses, hindered further by the effects of lockdown. Hopefully, however, provided that customers maintain their support for them, bookshops will remain open and continue to be magical places, whether that be through the charity they provide through sales for the local community or new discoveries for individuals to explore. 

Image: Alexandra Kirr via Unsplash.

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