Saturday, 23 February 2008

Naming names

An ex-colleague writes (someone I used to send freelance work to, proofreading and the like, when I worked in a publisher’s office, which wasn’t all that long ago but feels like ancient history): she’s starting up a new bookshop in May, in Woodstock in Oxfordshire. The space, she says, is tiny; but there’ll be room for lots of children’s books, and books from the small publishers that excite her (Eland and Telegram are two of those she mentions), and her enthusiasm is huge. May she thrive.

This seems a cue to name a few names: John Sandoe, the London Review Bookshop, Crockatt & Powell, Bookseller Crow in Crystal Palace, Daunts in Holland Park, Foyles in Charing Cross Road, Heywood Hill, the Broadway Bookshop in Hackney, the Calder Bookshop. Some of these places I’ve wandered into with a bag of CBe books and started talking; with others, more recently, the approach has been from them to me. All have taken books, and started selling them. Not one has queried the lack, on the books, of a printed barcode.

(In contrast, my local Waterstones – which I believe has licence from on high to stock a few locally sourced books at the manager’s discretion – mumbled about lack of space, not the right time of year, no barcodes, the near impossibility of taking the books unless I go through the main distributor they deal with. And Amazon? A joke. I’d have to pay an annual fee; books would be sent to them at my cost, they’d pay me no more than £2.40 per book and only after they’d sold the books at whatever price they choose, and – I know this from the experience of others – I wouldn’t see any money at all until after months of repeated requests. There’s a way of getting the books into Amazon’s ‘used & new’ subsection but there are copies already there, presumably the ones sent out for review that vanished.)

Some obvious things get said about independent bookstores whenever there’s a newspaper article about them: the staff know about the books they sell, because they read them themselves; they often know their customers too, because the shops are embedded in the local community. But the main point is this: there’s an art (doubtless a science too) to bookselling – it has to with knowledge and choice (what to leave out as well as what to put in) and enthusiasm and lots of personal relationship stuff – and the independent stores have the conditions in which this art can best flourish. The chainstores may make more money but their bureaucracy and hierarchy obstruct the art. Given the size of the book market, the scale of it, the chainstores and Amazon are probably reasonably efficient mechanisms for shifting product from warehouse to punter; but for anyone for whom either buying or selling a book is more a interesting activity than paying your electricity bill, the independent stores are the only places.

Some of them have a dog, or similar. And unless you’re in a hurry, you often come out with something – other book, new knowledge, phone number of someone nice – you didn’t actually go in for.

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