Amazon may have lower prices, but it can never replace a real shop with a book lover on
hand to guide us
When asked to think of a bookshop, most of us are likely to conjure up an ineffable sense of calm and cosiness, a general notion of wisdom and aspiration, rather than an actual place.
Why we have such emotional links to bookshops, and what distinguishes them from, say, a shoe shop or a supermarket, is hard to define. Perhaps it is the inherent value of books and, more widely, knowledge, or the sense that reading can better us. Philip Pullman once described independent bookshops as “the lantern bearers of civilisation”; perhaps it is that bookshops, like libraries, feel like sanctuaries. (Except perhaps on Christmas Eve.) Or, the niggling sense that all those Mr Men and Enid Blytons somehow shaped us into who we are today, and the possibility that picking up any book on the next three-for-two table might even shape who we are tomorrow.
With the British high street in trouble, and retailers preparing for the slowest Christmas sales in a decade, bookshops are, rather surprisingly, a beacon of hope. Nielsen BookScan reported year-on-year growth of £22m, with this year looking like it will best even 2016, when book sales reached £1.59bn, and Britain’s biggest book chain Waterstones made its first profit since the 2008 financial crisis. (A boom attributed to, at least partly, the return of the boy wizard as the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child hit shelves, and the first cookbook by that popular bundle of health, Joe Wicks).
Booksellers in the UK and the US have anecdotally reported an upturn in sales and footfall this year. There are a number of possible explanations. Books are classed as “low ticket” items (cheap), so they tend to fare better during hard times. We’ve also had a series of big releases: Michelle Obama’s Becoming, a new David Walliams, yet another JK Rowling. But also, I feel like a wider, general appreciation is taking shape, a sense that bookshops are providing something beyond transactions – exemplified in something that happened in one tiny bookshop in Richmond, Virginia.
At the weekend, Fountain Bookstore owner Kelly Justice watched “dozens” of her customers “showrooming”: using the shop to research purchases to be made online later. “I approached three people just a few minutes apart and asked them politely if they enjoyed finding the books here, if they would please buy them here. All three of them bought my recommendations right in front of my eyes on their phones and one of them actually laughed in my face,” she wrote in an email to me. “Earlier in the week, a woman came in with a group of co-workers and was zipping around the store searching things from our inventory on her phone and shouting ‘Amazon wins again!’ every time she found a lower price. I was speechless. At a certain point, you just get upset, you know?”
Five years ago, when I was a bookseller, showrooming was a problem; customers would often often disguise their motives as concern, starting up conversations about the fate of our jobs in the wake of Amazon (before leaving in a huff when a twentysomething refused to give them a discount). However, though Kelly says the practice has increased in her store, her angry tweet provoked 47,000 likes and hundreds of message from readers and booksellers around the world, sympathetic and appalled that anyone would be so rude.
“The world shouted back, ‘Neighbourhoods matter, little bookshops matter, you matter.’ It’s been overwhelming,” she wrote to me. “I’ve cried a lot. And I can tell you tears of gratitude beat tears of anger all day long.”
Perhaps the continued survival of bookshops relies on reframing booksellers as “agents of culture rather than just instruments of commerce”, as author Tim Winton once said. The best booksellers are not, strangely, just there to sell books: their knowledge allows them to arrange the books you see on shelves in a concerted way, not just to pack the shelves on the offchance they’ll make a profit. (A far more laudable skill than stocking rubbish books by everyone and their grandmother in a warehouse in Rugeley.) While this infuriates modern shoppers, many of whom treat the tiniest independents as failures for not functioning like a online behemoth, there is something tangible and valuable about being able to ask another human being to share their knowhow. I’ve had customers cry in front of me about books they loved; bring me in books just for the joy of sharing; and even cheerfully refused my assistance because they were waiting for a colleague who always chose perfectly for them.
It is my hope – and the hope of booksellers like Kelly – that this appreciation for bookshops solidifies and helps them thrive in what is likely to be a tumultuous 2019. For all the warm fuzzies, Amazon’s market share continues to grow, and it keeps slashing book prices in the hope that consumers will prize price over anything. But last year, the number of independent bookshops in the UK grew by one, to 868: yes, minuscule growth, but the first increase in two decades in which more than 1,000 indies disappeared. That crash that began in 1995 – the same year Amazon started. Hopefully, no one needs the reminder, but: a bookshop is for life, not just for Christmas.
• Sian Cain is the Guardian’s books site editor