Independent Bookshops

After Amazon arrived on the scene in 1995 and Kindles and ebooks followed in 2011, we’ve heard nothing but the relentless woes of booksellers thanks to the sharp decline in high-street bookshops. But is the tide finally turning? Are the fortunes of booksellers reversing?

In recent years, there has been an undeniable shift in the way people consume media. People are returning to vinyl in their masses, in a way the music industry never predicted. Leather bound Crosley speakers litter independent stores around the country, and people are taking to the streets to get their music fix again. Are bookshops having a similar resurgence? It appears so. The total number of independent bookshops in the UK increased by just one in 2017, which may not seem significant, but considering that we lost more than 1000 stores in 20 years, a year of growth, however small, is momentous.

This may have something to do with the fact that millennials are now fully embedded in the workforce and contributing to the national economy, and what we spend our money on is making a notable difference. We grew up seeing the transition from analogue to digital, and as a result are much more aware of the setbacks of too much screen time, and many are turning to older forms of media. Call it what you like, we are happy to be called gentrified-hipster-avocados-poached-egg-flat-white-afficionados, because we’re keeping industries alive. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

This ‘wokeness’ is not a trait limited to millennials. It seems that people are finally sitting up and paying attention to the issues activists have been harping on about for years. Finally, we’re seeing people use recyclable water bottles and coffee cups, and carrying spare tote bags for their shopping, and, it seems, supporting their local community shops.

Waterstones has even had to adapt their business model to appear more ‘local’ and ‘independent’ by opening stores under different names, such as Harpenden Books and The Southwold Bookshop. And lest we forget the growing chain of Amazon bookshops across the US, taking their business offline. Of course, they began as an offline advertisement for Amazon Prime, but the outcome has revived enthusiasm for real-life bookshops. When I visited the New York Amazon store, I was overwhelmed by how much everyone was engaging with the shop’s concept, proving that bricks-and-mortar bookshops still retain their magical quality.

It seems like the nostalgia for times past is often an overused trope in literature and media, but I really do think that independent bookshops are worth investing in. As a child, high-street bookshops and libraries were my Mecca. I took solace in wiling away the hours sifting through books and reading pages here and there before casting them aside. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of visiting Borders with my dad on weekends and flicking through all the books in the children’s section before deciding on one, and then taking it up to the cafe to devour with a blueberry muffin.

No-one can really say they get the same thrill from pressing ‘buy’ on an Amazon order as they do from investing time perusing the shelves and taking home their chosen book in a little bag. Don’t even get me started on Kindles. I understand their function but I’m a chronic scribbler, and I like nothing more than writing myself little notes in the corners of pages of books and flagging particular phrases or paragraphs for later contemplation. For me, this is part of my enjoyment of the reading process, and is something that helps me actively engage with the text. You just cannot do this digitally in the same way. Sometimes the beauty of reading is to engage with something without looking at a screen; we spend so much of our time staring at screens, it’s not only nice to have an excuse to look away, but an imperative.

Although many have gone ‘offline’ and are spearheading a generation of consumers of older forms of media, most of us are still living on social media, particularly Instagram. But this platform has its own benefits for booksellers. The rise of ‘bookstagrammers’ (book reviewers and bloggers working on Instagram) has made a real difference in how print books are seen. Instagram is an visual platform, and photos of someone reading a book on a Kindle is just not going to get the likes rolling in, is it. Bloggers get sent print copies by publishers, going on to create beautiful images, which reminds us of the enigmatic quality of real, tangible books.

It is not just the consumers who have evolved. By selling stationery, incorporating cafés and hosting events, bookshops have adapted to appeal to a broader range of customers and are returning to the status they once had as being the community hub of their high street.

Books have long had the power to bring people together and provide companionship to those who feel sidelined by the community. One of my favourite parts of reading is being able to share books with those close to me, recommending reading material that will suit the individual. Knowing that a book I bought has made it through the hands of many of my friends to then be returned to my bookshelves in a well-thumbed and tea-stained state makes the initial £10 spend so much more worthwhile. A book with a personal inscription inside is one of the greatest gifts you can give. These are the birthday presents that I cherish for the longest time: while clothes, accessories and homewares come and go in style, books are timeless. And no book is more of a timeless joy than a tangible, paperback book.

There are also some books that just suit bookshops better than an online format, in which only their name, author, cover image and brief synopsis can be viewed – is there anything more satisfying than finding your favourite book, rebound in a newly designed breathtaking jacket? People have never lost the desire to hold and feel a book before they buy them, regardless of the tempting ease of internet shopping. Graphic novels are the pinnacle of this form of visual text, and now more and more graphic novels are entering the mainstream. Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina was recently announced as the first graphic novel to make it onto the Booker Prize longlist, which has been met with skyrocketing sales and publishers struggling to meet the demand.

Some books have arguably ‘saved’ bookshops over the period of torment: cookbooks and non-fiction have retained print readers and kept the industry afloat. There have been several cult non-fiction releases in the last couple of years that have inevitably contributed to an economy boost for booksellers: Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury earlier this year and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and its sequel Homo Deus. Harari has just released another book in this series: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. While the internet has become a place for the boundless number of self-published and digital first commercial fiction titles, bookshops have become more about aesthetics than ever.

Although we’re seeing progress, it won’t be an easy shift. Now people have had a taste of that sweet nectar of next-day delivery and delicious discounts, they’ll struggle to go back to the seemingly vastly inflated cost of books in high-street bookshops. But there is hope. The Booksellers Association has called out the government for the tax systems which hinder the profits of bookshops. Currently, bricks-and-mortar retailers pay £2.41 in business rates for every £1 paid in corporation tax, and there are claims that Waterstones is currently paying 17 times more in business rates than Amazon. Hopefully, with bookshops banding together for change, the government can do more for our high street.

I would implore any Amazon addict to pop into their local high-street bookshop one day this week. With staff that know their stock inside out and can make personalised recommendations, events and talks with world-famous authors for only a few pounds (usually including a glass of wine – always worth remembering) and well-organised shelves that make the process of shopping for books pleasurable, you’ll struggle to walk out empty handed.

Words: Freya Parr

Illustration: Alana Keenan