There was a piece recently on the New Yorker’s book blog about independent bookshops, asking if we should fight to save them. Why do we worry when they shut down? And, if we do care about them, why don’t we spend more of our money in them?
The article made me think about the independent bookshops that I’ve visited recently, doing events, talking about my books, and how each of them has its own flavour, its own way of presenting books, its own voice in which it addresses customers, browsers, book-lovers. Each of them is embedded in its community, giving locals what they want, and, just as importantly, each of them had a very secure identity of its own.
I went to the Wood Green Bookshop in North London, where alongside new and secondhand books, they sell jewellery and other bits and pieces made by locals. The owner gave me a cup of tea; our conversation was constantly interrupted by locals coming in to chat or ask whether a book had arrived; then a group of mothers and babies arrived for storytime, and I headed off.
On the other side of London, and closer to where I live, is the Kew Bookshop, a lovely little place in a row of shops between the train station and Kew Gardens. In the summer, I spent a couple of hours there, signing books and watching customers come and go. Every writer should do that, to see how people buy books, how bookshops work. My favourite thing about this particular bookshop is the taste of the owner, Mark; unlike in some bookshops, I absolutely trust the little handwritten notes that he puts under books on the shelves.
Last weekend, I went to Woolfson and Tay in Bermondsey, which opened just over a year ago. It’s part of a modern development near the chic delis and galleries of Bermondsey Street, and feels like the model of a modern independent bookshop, where the books compete for space with a gallery and a cafe. As I left, one of the owners thrust a little book into my hands, a collection of essays written by locals, who have been coming to a workshop in the bookshop.
Thinking about these bookshops, it struck that their importance isn’t simply the difference between the small and the vast, the individual and the mass, the local and global; it’s not just the difference in taste between a loaf of bread made by hand in a village bakery and a plastic-wrapped packet of sliced white from a factory; but there’s a deeper difference too, to do with the love of books, our reverence for the printed word, and our passion for particular kinds of books, the slippery ones, the difficult ones, the ones which sit uneasily on a supermarket’s shelves, the ones that don’t jump out of the screen as a recommendation from an enormous database. These are the books that you’ll only stumble across unexpectedly, and pick up, and read the back, and flick through the first few pages, because you’re browsing along some bookshelves that have been carefully selected by someone with impeccable taste.