‘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!