‘Yes’ I hear you all cry instantly. But, really, do they? I am the proud owner of two independent bookshops and I would hate for them to close (don’t worry, they won’t, they’re doing just fine!) but I do ask myself whether what we do is actually so important that we should be preserved and supported as a cultural institution? Every day people tell me how much they love our bookshops and how important they think it is that people have access to bookshops, and particularly independent bookshops, but is it actually true?

Earlier this year, the Bookseller’s Association of the UK & Ireland (I am the current chairperson for the Irish branch) announced that the number of independent bookshops in the UK has declined to less than 1,000 for the first time in their records, a rapid decline from 1,535 just 9 years ago in 2005. In Ireland we currently have 145 independent bookshops who are members of the Bookseller’s Association (this includes Eason franchises and the small chain Dubray Books but does not include chain Eason stores and UK-owned chains such as WHSmith and Waterstone’s). We don’t have comparable Irish figures for bookshops in 2005 but it’s safe to conclude that bookshop numbers have probably declined in a similar fashion to those of the UK.

Over the past decade the way that we shop, and the places that we shop in, has changed dramatically. The rise of internet shopping and global brands means that all independent businesses are now competing in a global marketplace where community and local isn’t necessarily measured in geographical distance. We’re now used to being able to buy anything we like, at any time, at a lower cost than ever before. This is heralded as a golden age for consumers but, as ever, there are consequences.

There’s a wealth of figures to show why shopping with local independents is good for your local economy – for every €1 spent locally, it’s estimated that 50 to 70 cent will stay within the local economy through spending with other local businesses, wages & taxes. This compares with approximately 5 cent when you buy online. Independent businesses make our towns more interesting and diverse meaning that they are more pleasurable places to live and visit, as well as allowing other small businesses and suppliers to have outlets for their goods.

‘But you can’t stand in the way of progress’ people say and to a certain extent they’re right. Modern independent bookshops have to market themselves through websites and social media. They need to understand their strengths and their unique selling points. It’s a myth that books are always cheaper online – now, just as ever, it pays to shop around and especially when you have to take postage charges into account. Most Irish independent bookshops will now source books for you from the USA as well as locally, often quicker and cheaper than online stores. A good bookshop allows you discover books and writers that you didn’t know existed, and should be able to recommend something that you’ll love – even if it’s outside of a typical ‘you’ve read this so read this’ computerised algorithm.

But, really, do independent bookshops matter? If Ireland’s 175 independent bookshops were reduced to 120 next year, 80 the year after, 50, 30, 10, 0 what would happen? Something would fill the void wouldn’t it? You could still buy your books online and someone would invent a website you could use to discover new Irish authors or recommend books that you might enjoy. Worryingly, perhaps not. Reports indicate that a lack of independent bookshops would directly hit publishers and the kind of books being published – just like in nature, a lack of diversity means that many parts of that subculture will no longer be able to exist – certain publishers and books won’t find a market at all, and the economics for many writers means that they simply won’t be able to afford to be writers anymore. A recent New Yorker article cited that “money for serious fiction and nonfiction has eroded dramatically in recent years; advances on mid-list titles—books that are expected to sell modestly but whose quality gives them a strong chance of enduring—have declined by a quarter. These are the kinds of book that particularly benefit from the attention of editors and marketers, and that attract gifted people to publishing, despite the pitiful salaries. Without sufficient advances, many writers will not be able to undertake long, difficult, risky projects.” This is why such large predatory retail companies such as Amazon are feared so much. The recent example of all of Hachette books being withdrawn from the US Amazon website shows how such a large retailer can potentially be damaging for both publishers and readers. It’s true that they can also open new avenues to readers through e-books and independent publishing, but in the end a healthy system needs a number of key players to stop one company having too much control.

But there’s good news. 2014 appears to have seen a stabilising of independent bookshops in the US as customers begin to see the benefits of supporting bookshops locally. The words ‘community’ and ‘passion’ figure strongly in why book buyers are choosing to visit their local bookshops. As people choose to spend leisure time browsing in physical bookshops the bookshops’ role switches from a simple sales transaction to something more pleasurable and social, something that the internet will struggle to replicate. There will always be independent businesses that close due to retirement and a change of circumstances, but if independent bookshops once again become profitable, feasible and enjoyable retail businesses  to own then perhaps the decline can not only be halted but turned around.

Independent Booksellers Week 2014 takes place from the 28th June until 5th July. Participating independent bookshops across UK & Ireland will hold special events and offer ‘Indie Exclusives’ – a limited edition range of books only available in independent bookshops. What better time to show that you believe that independent bookshops DO matter!

As I sat on the DART to work yesterday I noticed that the lady next to me was using a Kindle, Amazon’s popular e-reader that dominates the e-book market. As an independent bookseller and (I like to think) business entrepreneur I actually have a quite complex emotional relationship with Amazon and its Kindles.

Amazon are the biggest threat to my livelihood as it stands. Amazon’s dominance of a growing market with a reading device that ties customers to buying their ebooks from Amazon, and Amazon only, is both an impressive business model and also one that seems unduly restrictive for both customers and competitors alike. I personally remain convinced that ebooks and physical books can co-exist quite happily alongside each other, and that indie bookshops could also sell ebooks successfully, but I’m not entirely convinced that this is how Amazon sees things. “You can’t stop progress” is the phrase that always pops into my head when I think of Amazon, it’s taken from the film ‘Muriel’s Wedding’, spoken by a developer as a reason for building cheap apartments on a nature reserve. Sometimes it’s important to make sure we don’t confuse progress with big business, and allow important parts of our culture to be destroyed in favour of rich multinationals. Saying that, Amazon are incredibly good at what they do and they have become a favourite with consumers due to low prices and great customer service, something I can only admire as a business owner.

Interestingly, this time around, my first reaction to seeing the lady and her Kindle was “I wonder if she knows how unethical Amazon are? And would she still support them if she knew?” There has already been much outrage at clothing companies who source products from ‘sweatshops’ and the previous evening I had read another newspaper report on how badly Amazon treated its warehouse staff, likening conditions to that of a clothing ‘sweatshop’ where almost impossible targets pushed workers on low wages to their physical limits with the overhanging threat of ‘termination’ should they fail to deliver their quota. By using mostly temporary agency staff instead of employing workers themselves, they were no longer subject to many of a standard employer’s responsibilities. This tallied with a Financial Times report on a UK fulfillment centre I had read a couple of months ago, as well as ongoing stories from industry friends about what a difficult company they are to deal with, and to work for. On top of their worrying human resources record is their widely recorded unwillingness to pay taxes and therefore contribute to the societies of the countries they do business in. Again, perfectly logical in business terms and something that helps keep their prices down, but worryingly unethical in terms of what it means for our communities. It is also interests me that whilst customers save on individual items from Amazon, the lack of tax income this means for governments mean that they then levy their citizens with more individual taxes to recoup those losses. So, inevitably, the money still flows out by a different means.

This isn’t about Amazon-bashing per se. As Jeff Bezos has said himself “If you’re competitor-focused, you have to wait until there is a competitor doing something. Being customer-focused allows you to be more pioneering”. Our bookshop continues to build year-on-year and we try to offer something different than you get online – personal service, discovery of new authors, recommendations, convenience and events that provide an added element to our customers’ love of books.  But it does concern me that whilst Amazon continues to grow and dominate the book industry, that it doesn’t appear to be an ethical company that cares for either its own workers, or the communities that they belong to. It’s true that with the distance the internet affords customers in terms of seeing who actually supplies your goods, and how they are produced, it is easy for a company to dodge their moral responsibilities. But ultimately it’s the consumer who decides how to spend their hard-earned money and a balance needs to be found between offering low prices and innovative goods, and being seen to support and help the communities that they serve.

The first step may be for consumers to become more aware of who they are buying from, and make a choice about the type of company they wish to support. With over 70% of recently surveyed 16-24 year-olds in the UK saying they had been ‘put off’ buying from Amazon over their tax-avoidance issues it appears that ethical shopping is still important to consumers and whether downloading for Kindle, or ordering for home delivery, the ‘sweatshop’ tax-avoiding Amazon appears to be doing itself as much harm as good in the public eye at the moment.

See Ethical Consumer for more info.

Next week (29th June – 6th July) is Independent Booksellers Week 2013 which celebrates independent bookshops and the reasons why they’re still important on our High Streets (Main Streets if you’re Irish!) Independent Booksellers Week is now in its 7th year and each year it builds into a larger celebration. We’re participating again this year as it’s important for people to realise that it’s not all doom-and-gloom as far as bookshops are concerned.

Every day I’m asked ‘So, how’s it going?’ and ‘What about them e-books?’ with people fully expecting me to tell them how tough it is, and quite possibly that we’re struggling to stay open. Of course, it’s wonderful that people care enough about us to ask the question but I can’t help but feel that the ongoing negative publicity around independent bookshops is also partly to blame for so many of them struggling to survive – it’s hard to convince people that you’re going to be there next year, never mind about next decade! Believe it or not, we’re actually doing very well – thank you for asking! This year’s takings are up on last year, which was up on the year before, which was up on the year before that. I’m constantly looking ways for us to expand our business, find new customers and improve our services to existing customers because it’s our customers who make our business work. Yes, it is a lot of hard work but honestly, what isn’t these days? And no, you’re right, it’s not about to make me a millionaire but I can live with that. This year’s Independent Bookshop of the Year Awards and the Bord Gais Energy Irish Bookshop of the Year both show that there’s still stacks of great independent bookshops out there that are not only successful businesses but also a key part of their local communities. Yes, there are less bookshops than there used to be and I’m not denying that there’s real threats to keeping bookshops on the High Street – not just Amazon and its heavy discounts fuelled by tax loopholes and low wages – but ever-increasing rents and rates bills, as well as town centre parking charges, levied by governments desperately trying to offset their loss of income caused by encouraging profit-led multinationals, but there’s still stacks of potential for independent bookshops to succeed in modern retailing. We need to adapt, and understand what modern book-buyers want from a physical bookshop, but we also need to believe in ourselves and help others believe in our future. There is a chance that there won’t be any physical bookshops left in 10 years, but there’s also a good chance that there will be and that they’ll be selling great books to great readers just like they always have done.

Walking through Temple Bar a couple of days ago I noticed that a Costa Coffee shop is about to open, just around the corner from where a new McDonalds is being built. I hadn’t heard anything about the Costa, but I had been part of the fight to keep McDonalds out of Temple Bar. With the Temple Bar Cultural Trust (our landlords) currently being wound down amidst some controversy and these large multinationals moving into what is supposed to be Dublin’s ‘cultural quarter’ (subject to much derision by Dubliners themselves) it seems fair to ask ‘what next for Temple Bar?’

We opened the Gutter Bookshop on Cow’s Lane, in what is referred to as the Old City or West End of Temple Bar in 2009. We lease the shop from the Temple Bar Cultural Trust who own a number of shop units and buildings in this area. TBCT also lease a number of the cultural buildings (IFI, Project Arts, The Ark) and areas (Meeting House Square, Cow’s Lane Market) in the area and use the income generated from rents to promote cultural activities in Temple Bar. TBCT was formed as a company in 1991 (under the original name of Temple Bar Properties) by Dublin City Council who remain its only shareholder. Once TBCT is wound down it is expected that the property management and cultural organisation for the area will revert to DCC. Temple Bar in its current form was created through regeneration in the late 1980s. (NB Please see clarifications on this information in Comments section below. BJ 16/04/14)

Personally, working with TBCT has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for the Gutter Bookshop. It is unlikely that a private landlord would have taken the risk of allowing an independent bookshop to open on this site, and TBCT have allowed a number of young Irish entrepreneurs to try new businesses in the area – some have worked, some haven’t but the support has been there to create something new and unique. That our rent is used to develop cultural activities such as Culture Night, First Thursdays, Get Active, Meeting House Square in the area has been a really positive aspect to the business (even if a large proportion of this is spent on the wages of those who create such activities).

The night-time drinking culture of Temple Bar has long been a source of contention which clashes regularly with the cultural aspects of the area. The opening of more fast food restaurants and generic multinational businesses also weakens what could still be Dublin’s best entertainment district. In 20 years Temple Bar seems to have moved further and further from its original concept and An Bord Pleanala’s controversial decision to overturn Dublin City Council’s objection to McDonalds appears symptomatic of a lack of vision for the area. Temple Bar retains the possibility to become a cultural centre for Dublin, appealing to both tourists and locals alike. Temple Bar should be a beacon for unique Irish businesses and groups that show what is best about Irish culture. Pubs have a part in this, as do cafes and shops, venues and arts centres. What seems to be lacking is any kind of co-ordinated plan to bring Temple Bar back to the original vision. But it only took 20 years to get this bad, if Dublin City Council, An Bord Pleanala and other interested agencies agreed on a new concept for Temple Bar and worked together to create it, Temple Bar could still revert (in about 10 years) to a highlight, not a low life, of Dublin town. Personally, I’d like to see support for local Irish businesses, cafes, restaurants (not fast food) with a limiting of pub licenses and size. Do I think it could happen? With a vision and commitment from DCC backed up by An Bord Pleanala, yes I do.

Four years into the Gutter Bookshop blog and I’m trying to make it a bit more reader friendly! (And also allow me to update it on the move as the website ‘diary’ style has to be written whilst I’m on the website editor on the PC at home – something I don’t always find time for). Anyway, one great advantage of moving the blog to WordPress is that it allows you (the reader!) to comment on the pieces I write and give feedback which will help me see what works well and what doesn’t. Now all I have to do is figure out exactly how the whole WordPress thing works…

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