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All the Bookshops Who Independent, Throw Your Hands Up at Me

Written by Jamie Fewery on Tuesday the 28th of September 2010
This is a piece I wrote some months ago about bookselling. Makes a change from short stories and is particularly relevant to any indie publisher, or anyone who likes to buy books. I reckon so anyway.

There is an image of the independent book shop.

Wooden shelves, leather bound volumes, classical/jazz music, books so
high you need a ladder to get at them, a doddery old proprietor (or a
drunk Irishman) and dust. Oh so much dust.

Perhaps it's a reasonable and working stereotype. Alas, I wouldn't
know as the only independent bookshop in my local shopping town closed
down some years ago to make room for what will probably become a
carpark. Furthermore most indies I visit don't conform to this idea at
all. Some are modernised, some disorganised, some brilliant and some
complete crap.

Regardless of the standard of the independent, the idea of them as a
foundation stone of British bookselling makes them worth preserving in
the eyes of many - witness several recent articles in The Bookseller about how we can all strive to keep them going.

I happen to be one who totally agrees that independent booksellers
are both brilliant and vital. But there exists no situation whereby a
poor outfit should be kept alive for no other reason than its lack of
affiliation with a major chain. Furthermore, if consumers are so fervent
in their desire for indies to stay alive, then they must back up their
ideals with their wallets.

If you will go around espousing the values of the independent, whilst
vehemently slagging off Waterstone's or Amazon then I hope you are
buying from an indie, even if it's not the most convenient option and as
a rule far less easy on the wallet than buying from a chain.

My own opinion is that if we are to have a rich and competitive book
retailing environment then indies must stay, but so must chains. The
industry has been damaged badly by the decline and fall of Borders as it
provided a range not found in most provincial stores. To lose
Waterstone's would be catastrophic.

As such I make a point of using an indie if it has the book I am
after, if not I'll use Waterstone's. I never use Amazon and never will
until I can be suitably convinced that they manner in which they conduct
their business is not extremely damaging to an industry that is
becoming increasingly bossed around by its tactics. The same goes for
supermarkets (witness my previous post about business and art for
elaboration on this idea).

As with any industry based on purchasing a product, comparisons can be made between book buying and food consumption.

If you are determined to stand against battery farmed chickens then
you don't buy them. They are more readily available (particularly in
smaller supermarkets), cheaper and certainly more abundant. However if
you are to have a principle, then you stick to it. The same is true of
any food-based lifestyle choice; a decision is based on what the
individual sees as right and good.

The comparison illustrates a point about making a commitment and
sticking to it. Not making one for the sake of sounding liberal, artsy
and cool, yet continuing to take the easy route.

I recently commented on an article about independent bookselling,
saying that the power is in the hands of the consumer and I firmly
believe that stands true. If you want your high street to have a
bookseller then use them now, because at some stage it will be too late.
Take the choices you make concerning food, beauty products and suchlike
and transpose them onto your book buying habits. It will more than
likely mean taking a hit in the wallet, but you will be preserving an
industry worth preserving.

Then again if you genuinely don't care then you should in no way be
made to support the indie. Personally I feel the importance of the
independent lies not so much in their quaintness, but in their spirit.
An independent is governed only by what they feel they should sell.
Crafty store layouts, designed to get you buying rubbish you neither
want nor need are not part of their tactic and for that reason alone I
prefer them to Tesco. Furthermore they treat their product with some
respect, as if it has some value beyond what goes in the till.

The state of bookselling to come is being determined right now. I
believe it is wrong to say that it doesn't matter if independents die.
If they do then we as a purchasing populous leave ourselves open to
dictation from internet and megastore monoliths with an agenda beyond
selling something that is decent and engaging. I would love for another
independent to open near me. Certainly I would continue to use
Waterstone's as I feel they are important as a company, but competition
brings out the best in everyone.

There is a growing appreciation of the job of the independent
bookseller, just as there is with market traders and specialist
retailers. But that appreciation means nothing if it's just middle-class
dinner party hot air and so fails not make the transition from preach
to practise.