Tiffany Jenkins: We must fight to save bookshops

The number of independent booksellers in the UK has dropped from 1,535 to 1028 in just four years. Picture: Complimentary
The number of independent booksellers in the UK has dropped from 1,535 to 1028 in just four years. Picture: Complimentary
Have your say

We must fight to save our local stores or lose them for good, but by the same token they must fight for our custom, writes Tiffany Jenkins

Sitting at my desk in front of the computer at the weekend, I paused as I was about to place the mouse indicator over the command “click here to add to your basket”. It would have taken no time at all to buy the new thriller I wanted – doing so online would cost far less than it would in a shop, and it would be delivered to my Kindle in an instant. I could be reading in seconds.

Instead, I logged out and made the effort to actually leave the house to purchase the very same novel at my local bookshop. It had to be done; I wanted to be at the launch of a nationwide campaign for bookshops, called Books Are My Bag.

The gist of it is simple. This is a campaign for bookshops, devised by M&C Saatchi, run by a group of publishers, bookshops, agents and authors, all of whom need us to buy books from shops that are under the threat of closure – which is most of them.

Just think about your local bookshop. When did you last go and is it still open? Bookshops are shutting. Over the past five years, according to figures from the Booksellers Association, the number of independent bookshops numbers in the UK has fallen from 1,535 in 2008 to 1,028 in 2012. The Books Are My Bag campaign wants to limit further closures. The aim is to drive footfall to bricks-and-mortar shops. Everyone should show their love for bookshops by visiting at least one, buying a book, telling their friends and extolling the experience.

However, there are unappealing aspects to the campaign. I really don’t need another naff canvas bag with a strapline that says, in bold orange, “Books Are My Bag”, nor am I enthused by the endorsement of the celebrities involved with the aim of attracting our attention.

Indeed, this can be off-putting. The idea that we are more likely to visit a bookshop because Jamie Oliver is photographed holding the aforementioned bag (especially as when he was on Desert Islands Discs – admittedly a very long time ago – he refused the customary offer of a book, explaining that he doesn’t read them), or even David Cameron, who was snapped with one at the weekend, is a little insulting.

After all, that is not why people read. There is far too much attention focused on a bag and “celebs” rather than the book. It verges on being too much of an advertising campaign – which can be shallow and temporary in its impact – and little more, although it is quite possible that I am being too grumpy.

I never thought I would want to support what people refer to as “the high street”. Shopping is not a revolutionary act. Despite the well-intentioned aims, right-on purchases usually make the consumer feel better about themselves, but achieve little more.

And why should we care if one shop goes bust, especially if we can get something cheaper online and doing so is easier for us? And yet, something does need to be done. The point is that the point the campaign is making is an important one.

There are significant differences to buying a book in a shop to purchasing one online, where most of the trade is now going. A shop is more social, you interact with real people. That is nicer, if less convenient at times, than online interactions. But what is really important about the bookshop is the impact it can have on our reading selection.

At home, when I buy a novel or a weighty tome, on the whole it’s a self-directed choice. I know what I want, find it, click purchase and that’s the end of it. In a bookshop, something much more interesting can take place. They can open our minds.

I am talking about the serendipity of browsing, which can lead to a chance encounter when something catches your eye, something unexpected but attractive on a bookshelf, that you would otherwise miss.

And then there is the expertise of the bookseller, the person on the other side of the counter. If they know their stuff, whether it’s historical fiction, non-fiction, or science-fiction, they can point us in the direction of something we never thought we would like, but which becomes a passion.

Discovery takes place more often offline than online. Thus far, the recommendations on the internet are executed via a computer programme, and it shows – they lack the expert touch of a person.

Bookshops are simply the best way to discover new books. What’s more, after the closure of the Borders book chain in 2009, a proportion of book sales disappeared; they didn’t migrate online, they stopped altogether. That suggests physical bookshops make a difference in supporting reading.

But they need to fight to get us back. My local bookshop is a place that, in the past, has failed to live up to expectations. The choice of books has been limited to the obvious, the selection on offer narrow. Asking a salesperson for advice would more often than not be met with a frown and a shrug rather than a nod and a smile. The gimmicks to get us to buy more books; such as the three-for-two promotion, appear to be bulk-orientated, rather than quality-orientated.

Frankly, the time it takes to get there and back for a fruitless search could be better spent on other activities, even if that’s just lazing around.

Booksellers need to respect the reader in all of us, not treat just as consumers. They have to work harder for our custom. That means improving and using their expertise and making the trip to the shop worth our while.

Special events on writing, in-depth discussions on different genres, readings, intelligent recommendations – an erudite, innovative and personal touch is what is needed and, of course, a decent café and charming decor does not hurt.

Bookshops need to be a destination, not just a place of consumption. And to be fair, some are trying this out. We should meet them halfway.

Bookshops are in trouble and it comes down to this – use them or lose them.