Even if we want physical books rather than electronic downloads, and I really do want a physical book I can hold in my hands, then these are readily available online through the mighty A (other online booksellers are available).
So why the need for a shop in the high street? It makes little economic sense to have it there – commercial property rental is expensive, staff wages could be saved. And aside from an extra place to buy coffee your average book shop is not offering the buyer anything that’s not just a click away.
I can only speak for the UK but the truth is that bookshops do feel as though they are slowly slipping away. In most towns the independent bookshop is a thing of legend. Cheltenham, where I work, is quite a bookish sort of place – it has a large and thriving literature festival for example. But there is only one, very recently opened, independent bookshop in the town which was started earlier this year as a labour of love by the owner, a retired doctor.
Even having that one shop makes the town unusual. Gloucester, a bigger city just down the road, has no independent bookshops at all.
Most high streets in The UK have a branch of the one mighty chain Waterstones, as the last bookshop standing. The only other two places where you can buy books at all in the UK’s average shopping centre are WH Smiths, which is a newsagent, and a bizarre chain called The Works, a chain of ‘book shops’ which seems to hate the very idea of books. You can’t go in there and ask for a particular title – they won’t have it, instead they have piles of odds and sods, presumably whatever they have been able to buy cheap in bulk to sell on – regardless of content. That makes up about thirty per cent of the stock, the rest is a curious random jumble-sale of junk – art materials, dvds, toys and games. Oh, and there are also the charity shops of course – there are always plenty of those, overflowing with dog-eared paperbacks.
A lot of people seem suspicious of Waterstones – they are the big guy, putting the little operators out of business. But I am grateful for them, in most places they are the only ones flying the flag for proper book shops, with staff who care about books and decent stock and a pleasant environment in which to browse. If the chain were to go bust that would be the end of bookshops in the British high street.
Would it matter? Well for me it would. Yes I know it wouldn’t stop me buying books. And, as an author, I sell more through Amazon than I do through Waterstones and reach more places, since only a handful of Waterstones branches stock my titles. But I think it would be a sad day if the bookshop disappeared.
I like to wander about and browse, pick up books and have a look inside. I’ll be honest, I don’t tend to get in a conversation with the staff or ask for recommendations, but it’s nice to have them there for those who do wish to take advantage of their knowledge.
Truth is though, hard economics and changing habits might mean the shops aren’t there for ever. Look at what’s happened to music stores – the last few shops stocked with CDs seem like museums, dealing in physical artifacts in a digital world. How long before bookshops go that way too?
What’s your view – do you think bookshops will soon be a thing of the past?