Friday, 25 November 2011

Your Bookshop: Use It or Lose It

Thanks to everyone who came to Blackwells in Oxford last night for my talk on Paul Nash. I thoroughly enjoyed myself - great to see some old friends and meet new ones. It was also wonderful to be surrounded by so many books. We were in the Norrington Room, which is a Tardis-like underground space, vast and absolutely packed with books. Apparently it held the Guinness world record for longest bookshelf until some even larger shop opened somewhere in... was it South America? Perhaps someone can help narrow it down!

All those books gave the room a wonderful acoustic and even though the space is vast it felt intimate. But then a good, well-stocked bookshop does tend to feel intimate, however large it may be. Insulated by books, the browser can forget the outside world for a while and relax. Well, that's what I've always done.

Books too are intimate. On the way home to Bristol last night I sat opposite a man rather older than me, who had his nose in an old, battered copy of 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner' by Alan Sillitoe. He was completely absorbed, not even taking his eye off the page as he nibbled at his flapjack. I once read a similarly battered copy of the same book, as have countless other people, but what really struck me about the man on the train was his absolute immersion in the world of the book - a world that opens when you first lift the cover, and to which you can return whenever you like, for the rest of your life. This chap might have read the book for the first time when he was young, perhaps when it was originally published, and was now rereading it for the tenth or fiftieth time; Sillitoe (who died last year) might have been a lifelong companion...

Blackwells at sale time...
I visit quite a number of bookshops to give talks, launch new books, etc, and I've chatted with lots of bookshop owners and managers. Many are struggling in the new world order of online retail and deep discounts. Others seem to be prospering and these tend (in my limited experience) to be the shops that muster a decent audience for a talk. These are businesses that devote enormous amounts of time and effort into winning not just customers but supporters. They run their own literary festivals or have comprehensive programmes of lectures and readings; they double as art galleries; they host book groups.

The Norrington Room - cosier in real life... and less green
They work, I think, on an important assumption. If you make your bookshop a place that is integral to people's lives, then they will stand firm against the temptation to 'buy with 1 click' and support you. It's not as if books, even at full price, are particularly expensive - how does a paperback compare with a round of drinks? Or even a couple of lattes? We go the '1 click' route out of laziness and that perennial (and very British) desire to get things cheap, irrespective of the cost in other terms. We may think of a favourite writer almost as a friend but will still choose to buy his or her new book at a colossal discount. What happens when I buy a book listed at £9.99 for £4? The writer's modest royalty, which is based on the actual price paid for a book, shrinks away almost to nothing. The publisher takes a hit too and is forced to cut costs, perhaps moving production to China (another British printer out of business), reducing staff and turning down books that won't sell sufficient numbers.

Much Ado Books, Alfriston - read this
A bookshop manager described to me recently the common phenomenon of people coming in, examining books on the shelf and then popping out to order online on their phone. These non-customers were enjoying the facilities offered by the shop - freedom to browse, attractive displays, carefully-chosen stock - and then taking their business to a cut-price rival who offered none of these things. The manager was planning to start accosting people and explaining to them that if they didn't buy books in the shop, the shop would soon be gone.

I once worked for an artist and gallery owner who would pursue customers down the street, refusing to leave them alone until they agreed to buy something. She knew that her survival depended on making sales, that no one was going to help her if she didn't, and that a certain proportion of people would give in and buy something. It's probably a good thing that bookshop people are less aggressive, but in fact the same principles apply; they either sell books or go under.

Toppings, Bath - the perfect bookshop?
Booksellers have found an array of solutions: selling rare books online; specialising in a particular subject; transforming their shop into an arts centre. Writers (and artists) can do their bit too, giving talks or encouraging people via social networks to support their local shop. But in the end what matters most is where and how we choose to buy books. We're consumers! We have freedom of choice! It may seem our God-given duty to buy everything for the lowest possible price, but it isn't.

By the way, I'm giving a talk at 6.15pm on Tues 6th December, at Foyles in Cabot Circus, Bristol. It's on Eric Ravilious and Paul Nash and you can expect lots of pictures to look at, the odd glimmer of humour and even a glass of wine. And it's FREE!

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