In this guest blog, Professor Andrew Thacker explores the challenges faced by contemporary bookshops. The rise of online selling and the ease of reading on digital devices paints a pretty bleak picture for print media. But then in 2015 something strange started to happen in America…
On a recent trip to Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham my conversation with Ross, the owner, was interrupted while he got on with the proper business of selling books. First up, someone who wanted the book companion to BBC’s television’s Blue Planet. Ross found the book she wanted. Then there was a guy who brought a couple of slim volumes of poetry to the counter: ‘I’m not sure you’ll want to buy that one once I tell you the price’, said Ross. Sure enough, the high cost of this slim volume imported from the US put the buyer off, but he picked something else up instead and then a conversation was held between the two about a future reading by the said poet. Finally, a man with a holdall laden down with what seemed to be second-hand books came up to the counter, his arms stuffed full of left-wing pamphlets and magazines: ‘Have you got the latest Socialist Register?’ he enquired. Not yet available was the reply, but Ross did furnish him with a tote bag for his purchases with the hammer and sickle upon it, a freebie that delighted the customer. A short conversation about the radical bookshop, Housman’s, in London then ensured.
This is the culture of the modern independent bookshop that I love, the experience of which you cannot get with one-click buying on-line. Recently I was lucky to be at an academic conference in Boston, in the US, and took time out from the papers and panels to visit a bookshop. This was the Grolier Poetry Bookshop, located just off the campus of Harvard University, and a shop that has been supplying poetry alone since 1927. The shop was beautiful, a small place which treasured books as material objects and which exuded a calming presence, wonderfully suited to the somewhat rarefied pleasures of slim books of verse. I browsed and soaked up the atmosphere, admiring the numerous photos of visiting poets, as well as the broadside poems printed on a wall, a tradition going back several centuries. I bought a tiny book of obscure poems and left, recharged by the cultural aura of the shop as much as by the pleasure in purchasing the actual book.
How much longer, however, will such places as the Grolier – the independent bookshop devoted to the culture of books, poetry and otherwise – continue? I suspect all academic bookbuyers of a certain age (which is what I am) will have memories of a favourite bookshop, whether on campus or nearby, or a secondhand store in which bargain copies of textbooks could be snapped up. For me the musty smell of an old bookshop is a sensory pleasure akin to Proust’s madeleine. But does the bookshop still hold a special place in the hearts of all academics? And do the obscure pleasures of the bookshop still appeal to our students? With the disappearance of many independent bookshops often staff and students just don’t live anywhere near to one of the ‘small good places’, as the American sociologist Ray Oldenburg, described certain bookstores (along with cafes and bars) that formed the heart of particular urban communities. We might well give our undergraduate reading lists to our campus bookshop, but do we – like 72% of our students according to a recent survey by market researcher Nielsen’s – then purchase our own books online, aware that time spent browsing away from our office in a physical bookshop for the latest monograph recommended by a colleague is time away from attending meetings? Isn’t it just quicker to order via Amazon’s ‘one-click’ service on the app on our phone, then turn back to our emails? On the Berkeley campus of the University of California the central student union now has an Amazon pick-up point for students (and presumably staff) to order online and collect on campus: with around 40,000 students enrolled here I am sure they are doing good business, even though the spartan book-free space does not resemble anything like the glorious labyrinth of a traditional bookstore.
I have been carrying out research, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, on the history of the modern bookshop, exploring how independent bookshops such as City Lights in San Francisco (publisher of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl) or Shakespeare and Company in Paris (publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses) have been important institutions in the development of modern literature and culture. But I have also been interested in the wider culture of the contemporary bookshop, challenged as it has been over the last two decades by the rise of online selling and digital reading devices, as pioneered by Jeff Bezos with the founding of Amazon in 1994. A few years ago it appeared that bookshops were in a state of terminal decline. According to an article in Daily Telegraph in 2011 nearly 2000 bookshops had closed in Britain since 2005; while The Bookseller reported that independent bookshops closed at the rate of one a week in 2012, leaving just over 1000 such premises. Even the big chain booksellers, partly responsible for the closure of many independents in the 1980s and 90s, were threatened, and the closure of Borders in 2011 was taken to be a sign that the days of physical bricks and mortar bookshops were coming to a close.
However, in 2015, Oren Teicher, the head of the American trade organization, the American Booksellers’ Association, announced a rise in the number of new independent bookshops, and boldly claimed that “We are engaged in decoupling the word ‘endangered’ from ‘bookstores’.” While in the UK, the Publishers Association this year revealed that sales of print books were rising, while sales of e-books fell for the first time since 2011. Of course, some or much of this rise in sales of print books could have occurred online rather than in physical locations, but the decision of Amazon in 2015 to open its first bricks and mortar store in Seattle seemed to indicate that the times were changing for bookselling.
The endurance and (partial) revival of the bookshop is due to more than simply the sale of books: bookstores for many years now have been places where other activities have proliferated, such as drinking coffee, listening to authors reading, attending a book group, or viewing an exhibition. Many of these practices have been around since the early twentieth century: Harold Monro’s famous Poetry Bookshop in Bloomsbury opened in 1913 and hosted weekly readings for many years; it also rented out rooms above the shop to poets and artists such as Robert Frost and Jacob Epstein. The current manifestation of Shakespeare and Company in Paris has carried on this tradition, with Jeanette Winterson writing in her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011), of a recuperative period spent within its booklined walls. The lure of a well-designed spatial environment for a bookshop, as seen in the revived Foyles in Charing Cross Road, London, shows that what continues to attract people to the physical bookshop seems to be more than simply its new or used contents. The Last Bookstore, in downtown Los Angeles, is perhaps the last word in what might be called a ‘destination bookshop’, ones visited by tourists for the experience of their interiors more than for the quality of their stock. The Last Bookstore offers a fascinating use of interior space and dimmed, noir-esque lighting to creating an atmosphere of the bookshop as purveyor of quirkiness. Some traditionalists might blanch at the use of books as architectural features, as in the hundreds used to support the cash-desk or those that carve out its impressive ‘book tunnel’. But for anyone who has ever been entranced by the quiet charms of a bookshop, it is certainly worth a visit.
It is not surprising, then, to learn that Blackwells, one of the oldest and most established academic booksellers in the UK, announced in The Bookseller recently that it was trialling two ‘enhanced concept stores’ on the university campuses of Cardiff and Liverpool, integrating their online selling into the physical location and creating a more ‘spacious’ and ‘social experience’, according to Blackwell’s head of sales, Scott Hamilton, that combines a café, seating, and digital display screens. “The big thing I wanted to change was the look and feel of the shops,” said Hamilton. “They are more modern, the ceilings are more open.’ It might only be a matter of time before the styling of The Last Bookshop has an impact upon a new campus bookstore, hoping that students will rediscover the pleasures of bookshop browsing as part of metropolitan hipster culture, along with craft beers and vinyl records (The Last Bookstore has a very good vinyl section).
The Nielsen’s survey suggests that bookshops, of all varieties, retain an important function in the student experience: of students buying new print titles during last academic year, 41% bought from a physical bookseller, with 25% from a campus bookshop, and 18% from a high-street shop. Not surprisingly, however, Amazon still dominates the selling of books to students, with 70% of respondents having brought from the online giant, although the share of total volume sales had grown in campus bookshops. Small, good places might have a long struggle ahead of them, especially if Amazon move onto more university campuses, but there are at least the glimmers that the pleasures of physical bookshop culture will endure and the interactions between bookseller and customer that I witnessed recently in Five Leaves will continue.
Andrew Thacker is a Professor of English at Nottingham Trent University. As part of the Being Human Festival he will be giving a talk on ‘The rise, fall and revival of the modern bookshop’ 7-8pm, Tuesday 21 November, Five Leaves Bookshop, FREE. You can book your place here
Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.