Killing off our bookshops? Who dunnit?

Image of Robert Shrimsley

It was as I was leaving one of those huge and beautiful New York bookstores that the feelings kicked in. It was, I realised, time to face our collective guilt. Time to name and shame all those who are killing the bookshop with our oh-so-smart digital devices. This is no time for evasion. So let me come right out and say it. I blame you.

There was a moment outside the shop when I wondered whether to blame myself, since I seem to own a large number of the aforesaid devices and haven’t bought a physical book in 18 months. But having examined the situation, I’ve reached the view that actually, my position is entirely rational and that, really, the problem is you.

I’d spent a happy 45 minutes inside, treading the thick, green carpets, surveying the heavy wood shelves but, as usual, I’d left empty-handed. The only money to change hands was for a latte at the coffee shop where I sat as I skimmed a biography on Ulysses S. Grant, which I’ll be downloading later. I even took a photo of the book with my iPhone so I didn’t buy the wrong one. This was low treachery.

Filled with self-loathing I remonstrated bitterly with myself: “People like you are killing these wonderful places.” For more than 30 years, a visit to a good bookstore has been one of the greatest pleasures in life. From the musty, low-ceilinged, tightly packed second-hand caverns of Hampstead to the airy modern temples of literature, I have spent more happy hours browsing bookshops than I can recount. I’m desolate at the thought that they might soon be no more. In fact, if you launched a fund to save the bookstore I would enthusiastically donate. Just as long as you don’t ask me to donate by actually buying anything there.

I must have known when I bought my first Kindle that it would come to this. It is not as if Amazon was disguising its intentions with the name. But all I could think of was the instant gratification, the convenience and the heavy books I’d no longer have to lug on holiday. I wasn’t that bothered about the actual books. Much as I recognise that I can’t furnish a room with digital downloads, I buy books for the thoughts contained within and I’ll trade the convenience for the aesthetics. But I’d gladly save the shops, if it weren’t so dashed inconvenient.

As I left the bookstore I was briefly seized with a new resolve to do my bit to preserve these places. Except I wasn’t really, because if I had been, I would have bought the Grant biography rather than waiting to download it later. I really wanted to do something but then I thought, to hell with that, I’m not going sit patiently for my order to come in when I could be reading the book in less than a minute. Nor am I going to lug a heavy hardback around.

So you see, it really is down to you. And frankly, I’ve not been very impressed by how hard you are trying. I know you could argue that your position is just as rational as mine but, look, one of us has to step up to the plate and it doesn’t look like it’s going to be me.

Why do we let this happen to ourselves? Are we all seized with the free-rider mentality of hoping others will do what we will not? This weekend I was in a strange town with time to kill and wandered into an HMV staging a closing-down sale. I thought of all the hours I’d spent in record shops and that, soon, I’d never do so again. How long till the same is true for bookshops? Perhaps we should all take a vow that the next book we buy will be from a bookshop, or create one of those national buy-a-book-in-a-shop days.

But it is probably too late even for that. Maybe convenience has become the only true retail faith? We know that convenience is a killer. One only has to look at supermarkets and out-of-town shopping centres to know that. Somehow convenience became an end in itself, even if it isn’t exactly nourishing for the soul.

I don’t suppose a vow of digital denial would save the bookstores. The great thing about it being everyone’s fault is that it’s also no one’s fault. Someone should write a book about that. Actually, make it an ebook.

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