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.