A heartfelt plea for independent bookshops

booksThere are so many ways to buy a book now. Online via Amazon perhaps, in a chain of bookshops such as Waterstones, in your local W H Smiths and even in your local out-of-town supermarket. You buy paperbacks, hardbacks and a variety of eformats. There are books published by the well known companies – Penguin, Simon & Schuster etc etc – and buy smaller, niche publishers. And of course there are the thousands of self-published books now available to download for Kindle, Kobo and the like.

In the midst of all these retail opportunities, where stands the independent bookshop? Remember -that lovely little place tucked off the high street where you might spend a few minutes browsing during an unexpected downpour, or perhaps check out a book you have seen advertised and then go away to order on Amazon?

I love little bookshops and head straight to any I might find when out for the day in a new town, or when on holiday. Second hand bookshops have abebooks -a great way to link up with shops that may have that elusive rare copy you have been looking for for years. But did you know that many small indie bookshops can offer a similar service? They can do an out of print book search for you with genuinely personal service.

Last week on my radio show, Talking Books, I had a great discussion about this very subject with Julie Munckton, who used to work in the wonderful Brendon Books in Taunton, where I launched Dandelions and Bad Hair Days almost a year ago. Julie now works for localbookshops.co.uk, the online home for independent bookshops in the UK and Ireland. If anyone can save indie bookshops from extinction it is Julie. She speaks for them with such passion and with the expertise of a brilliant bookseller that it now seems natural to me to go to the localbookshops website before I check a book on Amazon. Listen to us chat here – it was, I think, one of the best shows yet. Julie is a radio natural.

The principle behind the www.localbookshops.co.uk  site is that indie bookshops join up and then instead of buying from one of the retail giants you buy via your local book shop. Or if you have a favourite shop in another part of the country you can order from there. The book then be sent out to you neatly packaged at reasonable cost. I ordered a philosophy textbook for my son via Brendon Books, giving his address and he received it faster than if we had gone via Amazon. There are hundreds of shops already signed up so you are bound to find someone to help. Better still, you can, if you wish, be in direct contact with a REAL BOOKSELLER!!

Julie chose a poem to be read out on the show; a wonderful poem by Czeslaw Milosz about, of course, books…

And Yet the Books

And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
“We are,” they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

Czeslaw Milosz

It is wonderful and really expresses our passion for the printed word.

I worked in Waterstones for a while and although I do like the atmosphere in their shops, it was really a book supermarket with a head office directing campaigns and making decisions about what should happen at a local level. As Julie explained, local bookshops are much better for local authors using small publishers and are now finding ways to diversify in order to stay afloat. They are becoming real community hubs, hosting readings, festivals, supper club. art and poetry groups, performance space, birthday parties, story time and my favourite -cafes (although I agree with Julie that a cafe with a few books is not a bookshop. I would recommend the Wordsworth Cafe and Bookshop in Penrith, Cumbria. where my husband and I sat quietly with the Guardian crossword (provided by the shop) for an hour before checking out the books upstairs. Lovely, knowledgeable staff and great cakes. What more can you ask for?

It is difficult for bookshops to survive in these difficult times for retailers of all kinds. There are more battles to fight than those against Amazon – business rates and parking costs for example. But the big shops make it doubly difficult. Why can’t they stick to selling food etc rather than pinching all the little shops’ trade?

So next time why not give Julie and your local bookshop the chance to prove to you that they really can compete with the big guns? And if you pop in to browse, why not pick the book up, take it to the counter and pay for it, there and then, instead of going away to order it from Amazon? Those extra few minutes you save away from your PC are precious and may just keep our high street indies alive…

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