Alexander McCall Smith: Preserving the pleasures of the bookshop

Bookseller Topping & Company will open a new shop in central Edinburgh this year
Bookseller Topping & Company will open a new shop in central Edinburgh this year
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Electronic books are all very well but they cannot replace the experience of the bookshop, writes Alexander McCall Smith

The major news in the world of books last week was a British success story.

Barnes & Noble is the principal American book store company. They have over six hundred stores in the United States, and are a familiar presence in American shopping malls. For some years, though, they have not been doing as well as they might – a familiar story in book-selling. But now they have been acquired by the firm that already owns Waterstones, the UK’s largest book chain. Waterstones also used to have its problems, but then was itself bought by a Russian billionaire. He very wisely decided to appoint as its head a man who had a reputation for being able to sell books – James Daunt, who had built up a small string of highly-regarded book stores in London.

James Daunt has the advantage in life – and business – of being one of the most agreeable people one could hope to meet. His approach was to make Waterstones bookshops friendlier, more locally-rooted places. This worked, and Waterstones recovered. Now he is going to New York to rescue Barnes & Noble on behalf of its new owner. He has said that he wants to make their stores nicer. He will probably do just that. If you want to make a business nice, the first step is to install a nice person at the top. But it won’t be easy. This is a story that has a major competitor in the wings, a company to which – and we may as well admit it – we all turn to buy everything from light bulbs to crushed flax seed, shoelaces to … books. It is very simple, and it is cheap.

Light bulbs and the like may look after themselves, as their cultural implications are slight (as the exam paper would have it: discuss), but books are a very different matter. If book shops disappear because of the ease with which a website allows one-click transactions, then we shall all be immeasurably poorer. These shops are not just any old store, they are book shops – where words and ideas are laid out for us to explore.

Buying a book online is undoubtedly convenient, and there is a place for it, but it does weaken the whole edifice of book publication. First and foremost, it concentrates an immense amount of book selling power in the hands of a single provider, even if, in theory, anybody can sell a book on line. That means that publishers might be required to give the on-line store deep discounts, and that, of course, means they will feel inclined to publish popular titles that will sell in vast numbers. Poetry, essays, and the like may not get a look-in.

But it does more than that. When real bricks and mortar booksellers disappear we are denied the chance to browse. How many times do we enter a bookshop and discover an author we’ve never heard of, or a book that we would never have thought existed but that we feel we would like to read? In a real shop, you can start a life-time love affair with the works of a newly-discovered author, obscure or well-known.

Bookshops are having a tough time of it, but the situation in Scotland is alleviated by the tenacity and dedication of many of our independent booksellers. These may be crop up in surprising places. One of the most applauded bookshops in Scotland is in a small Borders town – St Boswells, not a place with a very large population. It was here that Ros de la Hay, a former publisher, and her husband, Bill, set up their Main Street Trading Company. They have now added a deli to their offering, so that people can buy books, sample and purchase salami, and have a cup of coffee all at the same time (though please wash hands in between). Main Street Trading was named Britain’s Best Small Shop in 2018.Similar awards have been won further north, by the Watermill Bookshop in Pitlochry, where Jayne and Kevin Ramage have been enticing Perthshire people into buying books for some years. In St Andrews, Robert Topping, a highly regarded bookseller who has well-loved shops in England, in Ely and Bath, established a bookshop a few years ago. He hand-picks the books they stock in this bibliophile’s heaven. He will shortly be opening a new store in Edinburgh, joining booksellers such as Marie Moser, who runs Holy Corner’s gem, the Edinburgh Bookshop. These people are heroes and heroines of the book.

These local bookshops, intimate in scale in an age of the big and the characterless, are little fortresses dedicated to defending an artefact that survives because we love it so much – the book. Electronic books are all very well, but you can’t touch the text; you can’t smell the paper; you can’t put it on a shelf to remind you of what it says; you can’t wrap it up and give it as a present; you can’t kiss its cover in gratitude. Actual bookshops survive because we love the physicality of the book – and want a real, physical existence rather than a virtual one. Still. Just.