PUBLICLY and painfully, the Borders book chain went out of business this month, closing its 45 shops across the UK in disorderly haste. The toll included five major outlets across Scotland, among them Borders' Buchanan Street branch in Glasgow, once the busiest bookshop in the country, where even the shelves were up for grabs in the closing-down sale.
• Borders' departure could throw trade back to the independent shops such as the Watermill in Aberfeldy. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
The loss of a book trade giant – and its 35 million worth of book sales a year – has brought warnings of difficult times for Scottish publishing. But if it signals the end of an era for the book chains, which emerged and flourished in the 1980s and 1990s, could it see a revival for Scotland's independent bookshops, in a return to an older-fashioned, idiosyncratic style of literary life?
"When the cats are away, the mice will play," declares a bullish Kevin Ramage, of the Watermill in Aberfeldy, with its thriving "destination" bookshop, stocking 6,000 titles and supported by an art gallery, homeware shop, and caf.
The Watermill was voted the UK Independent Bookshop of the Year in 2008. This trading year it has seen double-digit growth, said Ramage – in sharp contrast even to Borders' major rival, Waterstones, where sales fell five per cent in the second half of last year.
In the capital, the Edinburgh Bookshop, opened by Vanessa and Malcolm Robertson in September after the success of their nearby Children's Bookshop, says it is more than hitting its early sales targets. "We didn't expect to do so well," said Vanessa. "We just wanted to sell books that we love."
The author Alexander McCall Smith is among those who still lament the demise of the Edinburgh-based James Thin, a local original whose demise in 2004 was blamed on the slashing discounts of Borders and Waterstone's. "What happened to Thins was a tragedy, an absolute tragedy," he said recently. "The problem is that the chains perform a valuable function and get the books out to people, but it's all central ordering.
"Independents are the ones who will provide variety and choice, and they will not just take the great big sellers, they will take the more local books. If you don't have independent bookshops you won't get local books, not just in Scotland, but anywhere in the UK, being given a reasonable showing."
The issue now facing Scottish booksellers, however, is whether Borders' departure can indeed throw trade back to the independent shops. The risk is that the centralising trend only continues, with sales going to remaining chains, particularly Waterstone's, or the online retailers or the supermarket giants, blamed particularly for Borders' problems.
Curiously absent in the debate over the future of Scottish book-selling is much consideration of the impact of electronic books, Amazon's Kindle or the Sony Reader. The industry – and particularly independent sellers – remain convinced their impact, at least for now, will be limited mostly to technical manuals, text books, or reference books.
"I talk to our customers and they say they are not that fussed about the e-book," said Vanessa Robertson. "You can't lend an e-book." Other shops say the devices will actually open more opportunities for sales.
Hugh Andrew, managing director of Scottish publisher Birlinn, warned this week that the loss of Borders as a showcase for Scottish books, posed a "great danger". The companies' Scottish stores ran from the city-centre site in Glasgow to out-of-town shopping centres, including Edinburgh's Fort Kinnaird Retail Park as well as Inverness and Dundee. Early hopes they might be acquired as going concerns have failed.
"As far as we know, nobody has shown any interest in the sites. It was incredibly difficult to know what was profitable and what was not in the Borders' group. The rents they were often paying were astronomic. They were bleeding cash," said Andrew. "It's very difficult to know what's going to happen. For publishing as a whole, it's a very dangerous scenario because you are left with two book chains, Waterstone's and WH Smith, and that's your high-street dominance, and both of them have had their difficulties this year." In Dundee and Inverness, he said, there are actually no independent shops ready to take up the slack. While Edinburgh is reasonably well catered for, Glasgow also lacks shops in the city centre, he said. "I don't think anyone at the moment is putting any more into developing high-street retail in any way," he warned, with a "very tough year ahead".
A look at the UK Bookseller Association's listings for Dundee or Inverness confirms a bleak picture for choice in those cities. Inverness's 10 bookshops include three WH Smiths, three Tescos, and a Waterstone's; Dundee's 13 bookshops listed include three WH Smiths and four Tescos, also alongside one Waterstone's; the other listings include religious and campus book chains. Even among Edinburgh's 43 listings, these same names dominate.
Scottish publishing rode an "enormous boom" from the year of Homecoming in 2009, Andrew said, with demand for Scottish books well up from tourism, particularly in the Highlands and Islands. That will be missing in 2010.
But the hope remains that the old model of privately owned, thoughtfully run bookshops, in lower-rent locations off the high street, could see a revival. Andrew runs two bookshops of his own, in Banchory and Elgin. He points to a flourishing range of independent bookshops in London, from the London Review Bookshop, to Lutyens & Rubinstein, the Nottinghill shop set up by two leading literary agents, Sarah Lutyens and Felicity Rubinstein.
Kelsey's Bookshop has operated for about 20 years in Haddington. With the closure of Borders at Fort Kinnaird, owner Simon Kelsey expects a slight upturn in sales, but he is not happy at the prospect.
"The problem is we are far from having a choice of bookshops," he said. "That's us now virtually the last bookshop in East Lothian, which is frightening. The inevitable consequence is this will push more sales to the Internet," he said.
Locally published books, he said, need to be in shops for consumers to see them. "If they are only available in one or two bookshops rather than a brace of them that is going to have a really detrimental effect on small publishers for the future," he said. Borders managers at least had some independence to order books locally, he said.
The Edinburgh Bookshop stocks about 3,500 titles on its shelves. "We have to offer things that are different to Waterstone's, different to the supermarkets," she said. The shop tends to avoid stocking celebrity autobiographies or cookbooks, because they are heavily discounted elsewhere.
The shop's bestselling title to date has been Out Stealing Horses, the 2003 novel by Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian. Another strong seller was Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin. This Christmas the bookshop stocked just one copy of Dan Brown's latest bestseller, The Lost Symbol, and sold it at full price.
The shop hosts three book groups, which have helped boost sales of chosen titles, and most of its customers, she believes, live within a two-mile area. It stages its bigger author events at a nearby church, including one in March, with Alexander McCall Smith, launching his new No 1 Ladies Detectives title, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built.
"You have got to be different," she said. "You have got to give people a reason to come to you. We are much more targeted to what our customers are reading, to what they want to be reading."
Robertson is cautious about whether city bookshops, like her own, will benefit from the closure of out-of-town branches of Borders or other chains. "Destination" shops like the Watermill could gain, she suggested.
The Watermill's founder, Ramage, certainly think so. In this month's snow, he had people turning up at the shop on skis. "The demise of Borders was a real shame, a lot of very good people lost jobs before Christmas," he said. "But, at the end of the day, it was a chain that went down, and not an independent book shop. More and more people are looking for the independently thought-out book service, not controlled by centralised marketing budgets." With no-one stepping into take over the Borders branches, "they are now just empty sheds," he said. " I think that kind of high-rent chain book store in the next few years will be seen as the dinosaurs, rather than the independents, and we'll look back to a time when the big creatures died out, and the little adaptable ones survived."
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