Wednesday, 11 November 2009

How bookselling changed the nation

I am a bookseller, and have been off-and-on since April 2005, and I have a confession to make - I love it. So when I got into work yesterday, the whole place was buzzing about this article from yesterday's G2.

I've read the article, and I think that Stuart Jeffries perhaps has made some valid points. It is true, for example, that the book industry has changed since more unusual retailers joined the throng. Even before Amazon - on which more later - the supermarkets branched into bookselling, and it's easy to forget that WHSmith used to be a stationery shop. This was the beginning, as I see it, of the age of mass-market paperbacks. As retailers got into a price war, the face of bookselling began to change. I remember going with my mum to Waterstone's in Ealing Broadway (in the early days after Waterstone's bought out Dillon's) on a semi-regular basis to see what was in the 3 for 2 offer. It became a highlight of the school holidays when we were able to get books to read on car journeys and on holiday.

As for the growing trend for coffee shops, that is also not necessarily a new or a bad thing. In 1998 the Times Higher Education Supplement published this article on the changing nature of campus bookshops. Again, some valid points are raised. 

I take the point that it would be lovely if we could all sit and browse books in the coffee shop, but surely it's obvious why that is not allowed? I love new books. I can't help it, I love the mint condition of them. I read books and barely even bend the spine. Of course, I have copies of old favourites that are well-loved (I have ruined more copies of Oranges are not the Only Fruit than I can count because they keep falling apart), but on the whole I like books to look neat. I detest the idea that someone could not only take away and read a book before buying it (they might break the spine!) but that they could even take it into a coffee shop (coffee! argh!). Just thinking about it makes me begin to hyperventilate. So I'm afraid I'm firmly on Waterstone's'* side there; the Borders in Charing Cross Road allows books into Starbucks and it's always full of books and magazines that are so used as to look second-hand. It's an odd decision for a retailer to make, and a nightmare for book lovers. If the only copy of a book is in that condition, I would rather cross the road to Foyle's, or even walk to Blackwell's or the nearest Waterstone's, than buy it.

And this leads me, inevitably, to Amazon, where the new books are always in good condition (the only coffee spillage likely will ruin your laptop, but the book is safe). There are no other customers, no booksellers to confuse you with additional offers, no loyalty schemes. It's just cheap. OK, so some of the other sellers are confusing but on the whole it's straightforward and it automatically offers recommendations. You can even shop naked. Not that I do.

I remember the advent of Amazon, of course. I remember (was this Amazon's first incarnation?), and the way it revolutionised shopping. And, I admit, I love Amazon. I use it sometimes when I'm feeling pretty broke, and it's my go-to place for electronics. And with the advent of first MP3 players and now e-Readers (Amazon's Kindle and Sony's Reader) it does make sense to buy electronic books and music from the internet.

And what I love about this is the way our reading habits have changed. I work in a bookshop with an excellent range of academic books, and popular non-fiction. And with every promotion, I see more and more brilliant non-fiction being discounted and selling. Almost every academic bookshop in London sells Oxford University Press' Very Short Introductions for 3 for 2 at least once a year (I love these; if I had time I'd read them all). Authors like Tom Holland, Niall Ferguson and David Kynaston are increasingly popular and David Starkey, Simon Schama and Diarmaid MacCulloch are becoming household names thanks to their BBC history series over the past few years. Yes, Mitchell and Webb and Coleen Nolan will still sell well. After all, we still like a good nosey into someone else's life. But so too will the brilliant Wolf Hall and Christopher Andrew's fascinating history of MI5. Maybe Waterstone's has changed the bookselling industry for the cheaper, along with WHSmiths, the supermarkets and Amazon. Is this a bad thing, if it means we are reading more? We are buying and reading non-fiction at a much greater rate than ever before, and I think that's brilliant.

We're a nation of book lovers like never before, but despite all the new technology you'll never be able to beat going into a bookstore. Even though Amazon and Waterstone's offer preview chapters as PDF files, there's nothing like a good browse.

But - and I will end my small rant here, I promise - there is a limit. And I found the opening premise of the Guardian article slightly strange.

In the Bloomsbury branch of Waterstone's, I am trying to find a quiet seat to read Tacitus's account of Seneca's suicide

I would encourage browsing in a shop, always, and I think seating is a great thing in a bookshop. You need to be able to compare books before you commit to buying one, and I've picked up some great things that I never would have bought if the first chapter hadn't grabbed my attention when I was browsing. (The latest is Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big to Fail. Not my thing at all, but it turns out it's a great read.) But a bookshop is not a library. If you just want somewhere to sit and read something, Tacitus is available in any public library, or free online. But that notwithstanding, Mr. Jeffries clearly didn't look very far. I'm not sure about the lower floors but I do happen to know of a lovely, comfy armchair on the second floor, a window seat on the first floor and a sofa on the third. That particular bookshop is not starved of seating areas.

*Yes, I'm pretty sure that's the correct use of apostrophes.

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