Online book buying has become so second nature to many people that no doubt they never consider actually making a purchase in a real live shop.
Just as high street shopping now has to compete with online retail, so bookshops lose customers seeking not only the convenience of buying from home, but also the satisfaction of getting that book at, possibly, a reduced price by an online purchase.
But if three lockdowns in the space of some nine months have taught us anything, surely it’s the delight and experience of physically walking into shops and browsing.
And bookshops in particular lend themselves to a good old browse in a way that an online version simply can’t provide. If you know which specific book you want to buy, its title and author, then fine. A press of a few buttons, a swift submission of a credit card and the matter is all over, done and dusted. A functional exchange of a few moments.
But how often do you wander into a bookshop with no idea what you want to buy? In fact, half the time you possibly are planning to buy nothing, but are simply going for the pleasure of seeing all those enticing covers laid out for your delight and delectation. (Of course human nature being what it is, no sane person will ever emerge from said bookshop without a slim volume or two having won their heart and extracted money from their wallet or purse – but that’s by the by …)
Bookshops can introduce the reader to new books, new writers, new areas of interest in a way that online stores can never quite fulfill.
As a child, our local source of new books were a few shelves in shops more concerned with stationery and bone china ornaments and slim glass vases for single cut roses and doilies for cake stands (does anyone still use doilies? A very non-millennial word – nearly as bad as antimacassars) But I remember spending hours and hours choosing between various children’s Puffin paperbacks so presumably the stock was reasonable. For a real bookshop we had to go to London.
And we did. To Foyle’s in Charing Cross Road.
For decades before its enormous refurbishment, Foyle’s was the most famous yet totally chaotic shop anyone could ever imagine. Books were everywhere and anywhere. It was always hot and stuffy, summer and winter, and it was essential to have several hours to spare when going there as it took so long to negotiate your way to what you were vaguely intending to buy.
But I loved it.
As a child it was a treat to go to Foyle’s when I had a book token to spend or saved up pocket money.
Later, I used to go to Foyle’s when I was a student in London. Yes, Dillon’s, the university bookshop in Bloomsbury was the one advised, but a morning or an afternoon – or, indeed, a whole day – at Foyle’s was hard to resist.
Another bookshop close to my heart as a student is one that no-one but me seems to remember and I have no idea what it was called.
It was at Baker Street Station – just by the electronic boards showing departures for the Metropolitan line out to Amersham, Uxbridge and Watford.
If you angled things well, you could spend time browsing the books while keeping an eye on those boards in order to make a swift dash up the stairs when the suitable train came in. I very rarely bought anything from this bookstore, but I am forever grateful to it for saving me many hours on cold and draughty station platforms.
These days independent bookshops have to compete not only with online outlets, but with the ubiquitous chains as well as the supermarkets. Clearly, they are run by people who adore books. I mean, no-one would choose to run such an establishment if not for love. And everyone gains from their existence: writers, readers and the high streets – where the unique and individual nature of such shops is surely sorely needed.
So next time you think about buying that book you want online, why not see if there’s an independent bookshop nearby? You might have to spend an extra pound or two, but you’ll be buying yourself a rich experience into the bargain and returning home not only with a book or two, but with the knowledge of supporting writers, booksellers and the local high street.
What’s not to like?