On bookshops


Sorry I'm two days late this week. I was going to write a blog on the best ways to combine writing with studying, but I've decided to delay it in favour of an Emergency Blog. (That sounds SO dramatic.) This week I'm going to do two separate blogs: one today and one tomorrow. Tomorrow's will answer your latest questions and include recent foreign rights news, a bit of Bone Season  news and other things. Today's however, is dedicated to something that, as a reader, is close to my heart: the slow decline of the High Street, and what we might be able to do about it. 


Spicing up the High Street

You may or may not have heard that HMV, possibly the best-known entertainment chain in the UK, has just announced that it's going into administration. It's part of a gradual deterioration of High Street shopping that started, in my memory, when Woolworth's closed its doors in 2009. I remember being confused about it, but not paying a great deal of attention. This is a big issue, and I'm only going to touch the surface of it today, but in short, people are now starting to shop less in actual shops in favour of buying their goods online. (Doesn't help that it's nearly impossible to park a car in most high streets, at least not without paying for a ticket.) I don't know much about economics and I'm no expert on the causes of this phenomenon, but it seems to boil down to two big factors: money and convenience. Whatever the causes, more and more chains are going into administration – Comet, Jessops, JJB Sports. We're always hearing phrases like "triple-dip recession" and "austerity", feeling their impact in our day-to-day lives. Now we're seeing the results on a massive scale.  

The entertainment industry is in a precarious position. It's not quite the same as, say, the fashion industry. If I want to buy a dress, I have to go into a shop to make sure the clothes fit. I could buy online, but I know very well that Sod's law, the dress won't fit if I buy it online. With CDs and DVDs, though, I can just download them. Instantly. It's data. I don't have to test data in the same way I test my clothes and shoes. As a society, we're used to getting things quickly: instant emails, Skype calls, breaking news. The combined need for convenience, speed and low prices is causing us to turn to Amazon and iTunes for our books, music, games and DVDs. Things are also cheaper online. Shops like HMV have to pay their taxes, royalties and so on, so there's a limit on how cheap they can go. Last time I bought a CD it was about £6. If you only want one song from an album, that's a lot.  

There's no doubt about it: the Internet is the future. If not for the Internet this blog wouldn't be here and you guys wouldn't be reading it. It's a brilliant way to communicate, to send and receive information, to be part of the wider world. It's transformed the human experience. It is quite possibly our greatest achievement: a place where we can come together. At the risk of sounding like a technophobe, however, I truly believe there should be a limit on how far the Internet shapes our lives. We can now buy our clothes, pretty much all commercial goods, even our food online. We can work from home, do degrees and talk to our friends. (I don't think we'll all just stop leaving our rooms and live like zombies, but you have to wonder where we're heading with all this. But that's best discussed in a post-apocalyptic novel, not this blog.)  
I'm twenty-one. I've grown up surrounded by technology and consider myself well-versed in it. I appreciate the Internet. I use Skype and Y!M to talk to friends in the US, and my family when I'm at uni. I've bought academic books, Christmas presents and DVDs on Amazon. I buy most of my music from iTunes, simply because I tend to only like one or two songs on an album and I don't want to shell out for the whole thing. I forget everything but the convenience. I forget the High Street. I'm part of the problem.   

You might be shaking your head now. "Why do we want to save the High Street?" you might ask. "What's the point, if people don't want or use it?" I don't think most people do want to lose it. They just don't think about it. The solution? We have to make people think about it. I have to think about it. You have to think about it. 

I don't pretend to have any sweeping solutions to what's happening, but here are my thoughts on it. If the High Street is going to survive, it has to do several things. First, it needs to combine online sales with over-the-counter retail. To my knowledge, HMV didn't take advantage of the Internet. But even more importantly than online sales, a High Street shop needs appeal that goes beyond the commercial. It has to be more than simply a place to shop. It has to be a kind of hub for whatever it sells. You have to go there and get something – more than just the product. You can get that online. 

Here's where I finally get to my point: bookshops. Everyone knows bookshops are under threat, mostly thanks to the rise of eBooks, and not all of them have adapted to it. Indie booksellers in particular are struggling to cope with the eBook age. That's a whole different issue, but there are ways that bookshops can adapt. There are ways for bookshops to become more than just shops that sell books. Waterstones were absolutely right to start selling eBook readers. They recognised an unstoppable new trend and adapted to it. I went into Waterstones Oxford yesterday and was struck by how much it's evolved. It has a Costa upstairs with an amazing view over George Street. It has beautiful displays of books, neatly organised and easy to navigate. It has knowledgeable and friendly staff who are passionate about what they do and always happy to chat about books. It communicates with readers on Twitter. It has a section for eBook readers, along with a selection of lovely covers for them. It's fantastic. As someone who loves books, I feel at home there. In a way, it's a bit like the Internet: an interactive, human exchange. I don't just take the product home. I've had a positive experience. I feel better than I did before I went into the shop. It's also significant that bookshops do events: author signings, readings for kids, celebrations of literary anniversaries.  
That's what I want from bookshops on the High Street  I want celebrations. I want to go in and learn about my favourite subject: books. If HMV pulls through this, I hope they do even more to celebrate music – to give music fans a reason to go to them before iTunes.

But it isn't just the shops that have to change. We do, too. This is something we can do together – not just people who love to read, but people who love to write. I don't think there's anything an aspiring writer wants more than to see their work in a bookshop. Not on Amazon or on a website – in a bookshop, in a window, where readers can see it. That could all change if we don't all pull together to save British bookshops. People are going to HMV now, when it's too late, but they didn't before. They're complaining about the chain's collapse when they never shopped there. Don't let that happen with High Street bookshops. 

This year I'm intending to buy at least one book a month from Waterstones. This month I bought Clay by Melissa Harrison. It's a little more expensive than it would be to buy them on Amazon, but when you think about how much work has been poured into a book – when you think about the hours of editing, the typesetting, the cost of binding and printing, the hours spent on the cover design and the writing and the conception – and the fact that you'd spend about the same on a few pints in the pub, it's really not that much. A night out in London costs at least £30. A hardback costs about £12 - £15, but you can open it again and again. And remember, bookshops pay their taxes

Of course, no-one can afford to buy every book they want to read. There are just too many books in the world. Good news is, there are also libraries.

So next time you feel like buying a book, consider popping into a bookshop. I can't guarantee a fantastic experience every time, but I can guarantee a little world of books that you just won't find on Amazon. 


  1. I know it's a bit different commenting from Australia than the UK, where book prices are pretty darn cheap compared (I literally broke my suitcase on my first visit from buying too many books!)

    Here in Australia, a new book is $22-$36 in the bookstores. I can get the same book for under $9 online.

    I love bookstores, I do. I also like both being able to pay my bills and having books to read, and sadly, the idiotic prices they charge in Australia means I rarely buy from a store these days. I feel very, very guilty, but I can't pay almost triple the price each time.

    It's also why I review books for publishers though. Free books, which I then donate to a friend or charity or library, or if nothing else, pound friends and co-workers with until they read it and hopefully buy their own :)

  2. This is so sad :( We only have one bookstore left here. If our stores had followed Waterstone's business model I think it would be a different story.

  3. My hometown in Australia has shut down so many bookstores (Woolworths still remains!). I was back in the country recently and was dismayed at the lack of bookstores around the city and suburban shopping centres. Only the indie booksellers and specialists seem to be surviving.

    But worrying about shops in High Street is one thing, but what about the government closing down libraries across the country? I'm also interested in your thoughts on that, which appears, to be a much more pressing and distressing issue in the U.K. right now.

    1. Ah Woolworth's! I'm so there if I visit Australia.

      I'm devastated about the library closures; should have mentioned that as part of the blog – I was very focused on the High Street after hearing about HMV. I'll chat about it more in another blog, but I find it so disheartening. I keep seeing pictures of 'paperless' libraries, too (they just look like school canteens to me, totally bare with nothing but computer stations). I agree that most academic books could be moved online – I don't really benefit from reading them on paper myself – but I'll admit to shameless love for paper books when it comes to fiction.

  4. The death of bookstores is sad to watch. My father works in a library so I grew up around piles and piles of books. There is a large chain of Used Book stores in the states that does relatively well but its staff is usually less than knowledgeable. Generally there is at least one really great used book store around big universities here. Also, the culture to properly appreciate troves of books exists around communities of hipsters. My personal favorite is a place called Magers and Quinn. It has that perfect bouquet of age, dust and light must. Its staff knows more about books than I could ever hope for and its shelves to to the ceiling in every corner.

    I couldn't ask for more from a bookstore.

    1. Great topic! Last night I had a inspiring discuss about eBooks and how terrible the scenario about paperbooks being totally moved into Internet would be.

      Luckily we still have in Finland many bookstores and we're really lucky, because we're living in so small country!

      It's very sad to hear about HMV. I've been there for a few times. You were right when you said that HMV has to be more than an place to shop. It's pitty that technology is displacing stores, specially the ones like HMV. It's not the same feeling searching in Internet for a movie than being in a store and really touching the back covers of movies, music and books yourself!

      What can I say, lets hope that at least book shops would stay alive.

    2. DWD Johnson – Magers and Quinn looks like a dream come true! It must have been wonderful to grow up with a librarian in the family. There's a kind of hidden room in the library at my college that's stuffed with all these big dusty books, I love it.

      Jouneezeh – Yes, I agree about paper books. I'd hate it if they were all moved to the Internet. I see the logic behind it and I'm keen to save trees, but I just can't read eBooks myself. I use books to unwind in the evenings and it just doesn't have the same effect when I'm reading off a screen. Plus I like the feel of opening a book and it being like a kind of 'portal'. When the book's open I feel like I'm really *in* the story. I agree with academic textbooks being moved online as [a] they're very bulky and [b] I don't look for the same feeling of immersion as I do with a fiction book. Also I can't imagine how depressing it will be for authors to have a manuscript on a screen, then see their published novel on a screen. You want a nice bound copy!

  5. Yeah you're right about it, neither do I. I'm only starting to learn reading novels but I can say already that the feeling is a lot better when you have the book *really* in your hands. I guess it would really be depressing for authors.

  6. OMG thank GOD for libraries. And used book stores. I used to be a HUGE library&used book store prude, not wanting to touch books that had been dirtied and touched and read by who-the-hell-knows, who-the-hell-knows-where. But thanks to a little paradigm shift in my mind, I am now down on my knees praising libraries. And this probably is a good thing because I wouldn't know where to put the new books coming in, and have probably saved lots of money better used for my education.

    I do have to aedmit however that when I do buy books, its mostly on amazon.com or wherever I can find the cheapest price. Because I am also a cost prude. And cringe at shelling out more than 9 bucks for a book, even a hardcover. Now that you have brought it up however, I do realize that all that goes into a publishing book is a TON of effort and brain power and time, so it makes me feel a little guilty.
    ANd I LOVE bookstores! They are seriously the most comforting, relaxing place to be and it breaks my heart that some have to close. A Borders closed in my city two years ago and I about died on the spot. It was airy and light and full of my best friends.
    Also, e-books are the most confounding thing ever. I absolutely adore holding a physical copy of a book in my hands and seeing the actual print on paper pages. Very satisfying. To do otherwise sounds silly except I suppose for the people who want an e-reader for convenience or they are embarrassed by the book they are reading, or its cover.

    Hmm. Another long comment as usual. I just cant stop my mind from running or my hands from typing I guess.


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