Thursday, 14 January 2010

Books and shopping

T and I were bemoaning the demise of Borders. Having lost both of Islington's independent book shops years ago, we are now left with just Waterstone's. We visited last weekend, book tokens (or rather those credit card-type things) burning holes in our pockets. We left with a couple of children's books. But the shelves I go to first didn't hold anything tempting: Biography was OK but overfull of celebrity crap, History poor, and Politics hopeless.

It's a dispiriting sight, the bookshop battlefield. So many slain: Borders, Books Etc., Dillons, Ottakars and surely hundreds of independents. And the remainder increasingly uninspiring, Waterstone's being a case in point.

The problem is that there was nothing there unexpected, just a limited focus on the better sellers. It seems strange to criticise a shop for stocking what sells but I do feel that specialist high street bookselling, if it's going to survive, will have to surprise somewhat, present you with titles you hadn't decided to buy before you came in. I tend not to browse Amazon. I go there to buy what I know I want. So a bookshop could persuade me to shop there regularly if it offered me the chance to buy things I don't already know about. Otherwise, why bother when Amazon is so easy and cheap?

But this, of course, requires some investment by the retailer: in slow-moving stock and knowledgeable buyers. And this must be difficult to justify in a shrinking market. So we have something of a vicious circle: falling revenue leads to cuts in costs, which reduces the distinctiveness of your offer, alienating customers. And so on. Perhaps now Borders is gone Waterstone's will use its bigger market share to raise its game?

Of course, when it started it set a new benchmark for the multiple retailing of books. An old friend and I were discussing this the other week. He recalled how when he worked at the Waterstone's on Charing Cross Road during his gap year - nearly twenty-five years ago now - he was given responsibility for the History shelves. In those days, buying was done by the store and he was given some responsibility to select stock. As he was interested in Italy and Spain he filled his shelves with titles on these countries.

His neighbour in Philosophy happened to be Ray Monk, a few years later to be a respected biographer of Wittgenstein and already with a considerable reputation as a Wittgenstein scholar. Guess what the philosophy shelves were full of? My friend reckoned they must have had a more current and exhaustive selection of Wittgenstein-related titles than most university libraries.

Now, I'm sure some were infuriated by this policy. But it sounds great to me: personal enthusiasms increasing the chances of serendipity. There were other benefits too. Apparently, Wittgenstein students from across the world would pitch up at Waterstones on Charing Cross Road to have a chat with guru Ray.

A publisher friend told me the other night that there would be more blandness around today even without the rise of online retailing. Apparently, it's all down to the demise of the Net Book Agreement (back in the '90s), which fixed retail prices for books. This guaranteed publishers' margins and gave them the latitude to have broader catalogues. They could make money from smaller print runs, meaning more marginal authors were profitable. Germany still has this arrangement and a correspondingly more vibrant and eclectic publishing industry. However, I doubt very much indeed that that genie will be put back in the bottle. The supermarkets, for one, would oppose it.

Thank God for the odd superb (they have to be) surviving independent. We love Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street. It's much, much more than a travel bookshop (what it's best known as). It's highly likely you'll find something there that's interesting but which you've never come across before - even if it's on a subject you thought you knew well. Lovely space, too.

I sincerely hope good bookshops, like Daunt, have a future. Surely now, there's a niche for a comfortable, offbeat, coffee-serving, destination bookshop in Islington? There's no sign of the tide turning yet, however. Let's hope it does. The fate of Laredo, Texas stands before us as a terrible warning: a town of 250,000 without a single bookshop. I wonder whether Amazon has disproportionate business from Laredo customers? Or do people just not read in that benighted city?

The linked article reckons 'residents will have to travel about 150 miles across arid ranchland to San Antonio to buy books.' Now that's what I would call a commitment to culture. Perhaps taking the bus down to Marylebone isn't too much to ask, after all.


worm said...

great read!! And I agree about waterstones - I only ever go into our one to buy boring things like business books, the modern fiction section is useless, although the travel guide section is huge. But in general I try never to buy new books, I prefer the random discoveries of the oxfam shop! I must buy at least 3 books a week from the one in my town, and yet every week it has a whole new selection of £1.99 treats for my delectation. Must be a lot of well-read grannies about these parts

Brit said...

Agree with you about the sadness of the decline of the browse-able bookshop, but on the other hand it is so much easier to get any book you want now, and cheaply.

But as Worm says, there has been one huge improvement in real-world book retail: the second-hand book specialist charity shop. There are 3 really excellent ones in Bristol - two Oxfams and an Amnesty. Big choice and much cheaper than the old independent second-hand shops.

Sir Watkin said...

The future lies with Printing On Demand, which has the potential to produce an extraordinarily vibrant and eclectic market, but unfortunately the big publishers can't see it.

They are like the canal system in a railway age.

Anonymous said...

Kiel has at least 3 large second-hand bookstores, strange but pleasing.

worm said...

sir watkin/ gaw - here's two things about future publishing that I read today that you might find interesting:

and (very interesting)

Gaw said...

Worm and Brit: The online second -hand bookshops are amazing value too. I have been getting to them via Amazon but am now going direct (e.g. AbeBooks).

I find going to Hay-on-Wye a real treat.

Sir Watkin and worm: Fascinating article that second one. I would speculate that bookshops would continue to stock some titles but they'd also act as specialist book printers and binders where you could collect what you'd ordered online. Their other purpose would be to provide an arena for book-related events and a browse whilst you enjoy a coffee.

'Ready-mades', printing-to-order, coffee, cake, events: that might be enough to support a high street bookselling operation.

worm said...

I too love a bit of Hay on Wye action!

Personally I envisage a future where people who want new books order them online from amazon, where they are then printed to order.

Everybody else should then just buy second hand books from giant oxfam bookshop malls, which also provide "coffee, cake, events".
Their staff work for free so they wont be going bust in a hurry.

I should get a job as a futuramalologist

word verification : Blereque - a ragged bunch of tramps and alcoholics standing in drunken disarray outside a job centre before it opens

Gaw said...

Charity shops don't pay business rates either.

From the French, I assume (cf. p44, 'Down and Out in Paris and London' by G.Orwell, Victor Gollanz London 1933 edition).

Gaw said...

Elberry: Strange and pleasing?

Bunny Smedley said...

Although Foyle's has become marginally less eccentric over the past decade - a pity, because the inspired weirdness of the selection policy more than compensated for the oddly Soviet 'queue to collect a ticket to collect your book on another floor entirely' arrangement - it's still highly browsable.

And can I put in a good word for Heywood Hill, too? It's a bit like dropping in on some rather grand but clever and interesting friends and borrowing an armful of books from them - except, of course, that at some point, even if you have an account there, Heywood Hill expects you to pay for the books. The fact that this always comes as a surprise tells one everything about the charm of that deeply odd, rather wonderful place.

Sean said...

only one bookshop worth going too, you will spend a day there, i promise.

worm said...


Brit said...

Foyles is just that bit too mad (Or it was last time I went there, which was ages ago.)

Gaw said...

Bunny: I keep thinking Heywood Hill is Hatchards and wonder what all the fuss is about. I haven't been but should. It's just the wrong side of Mayfair (for me anyway!)

Sean: Looks great. But if I struggle to get over to the western side of Mayfair...

Worm: Sensible chap. A reader perhaps?

Brit: I don't suppose you'll be back in London for a few years now, what with the baby.

Vern said...

I met a woman who grew up in Laredo last October. She had vivid recollections of the city's library, which contained a pitiful selection, the highlights of which were three Hardy Boys mysteries. She read them over and over again, and these days volunteers every year at the Texas Book Festival in Austin.

Like all border towns Laredo is a dump but apparently it still had a bedraggled charm back in the late 60s.

Vern said...

There's also a lot of discussion of these topics at publishing, a Frankfurt affiliated website fairly obsessed with the issue of the future of the book. Nash is a contributor. But how many Soft Skull books do you have on your shelf?

Gaw said...

I gather Austin is quite different. I wonder, is it as nice and cultured as people suggest?

I haven't even heard of Soft Skull (I shall google it).

Gaw said...

Ah, got it: Nash's "literary version of a punk rock label."

Do you rate them?

Vern said...

Austin is a good town, a lot better than San Antonio for instance. Lots of music, art, technology, plus a strong community spirit. But there are lots of good, interesting places in TX- just none of them are on the border.

Soft Skull books tend to be more interesting as concepts than as actual reads, although under Nash they were always big risk takers, with an emphasis on radical left politics. Nash is an ideas man... he has a new project he is trying to get off the ground which purports to be the future of publishing, called 'Cursor'.