Last night, at book group, my good friend Caroline told us how she had been accosted in Smiths by a pushy sales woman thrusting the latest Fifty Shades in her face. While for some, this might count as Grey foreplay, for Caroline – more a fan of Mantel than sado-masochism – it brought a sharp denouement to her book browsing. Faced with a bookseller to rival Del Boy (“Buy it. You’ll really love it,”), my friend politely, and without irony, told the woman where to stick her Christian. She then marshalled her accompanying five year old daughter towards the exit. Chateauneuf du Pape! As DB would say.
Later, over book club chat and ginger cake, we lamented not only the growing popularity of Fifty Shades (whilst so many great authors go unnoticed), but also the demise of independent bookshops – those beacons of high street hope who observe our reading preferences as closely as their bottom lines, and who would never make such heinous errors in judgement.
I mean, seriously, can you imagine arriving for story time with a pre-schooler and being harangued into buying soft porn?”
The indie bookseller’s ability to get it right – to suggest ideas, not press gang for a sale – goes a long way towards their appeal. A good bookshop is an oasis in our busy lives. Beyond the storefront, lies the promise of an unhurried half hour’s head-inclination and pleasure of the page-flicking kind. Only the background noise of an espresso machine, with perhaps a light accompanying froth of jazz music, should break the silence. Under these conditions, it is almost impossible to get irate. (Although I did once witness a vicious tut from a woman who requested a travel guide that wasn’t in stock. She was flying to Dubrovnik that afternoon, nuff said).
Indie bookshops are for life. And my life, it seems, can be charted by the indies I have frequented. As a kid, I got so excited by the books in ‘Claridges’ (Helmsley), I regularly peed my pants next to Enid Blyton; in Dijon, ‘Gilbert Joseph’ was my home from home, proving that no matter the language there is something reassuring about cradling a paperback; in Chorlton Bookshop I fell back in love with reading after an English degree, and now the cycle begins again. Every Friday I visit Urmston Bookshop (Manchester) with my two year old lad and enjoy a story, songs and cake. It is the highlight of our week and, I hope, will create a lifelong happy association with reading.
Gaps in my book-buying CV reflect my student days and being a new mum. During the former I got my book-kicks in the library, but the latter was more of a ‘Blue Period’ – I’m talking two or three books a year – brightened only by the discovery of audio books which allowed me to listen and whizz up a puree.
As a writer, bookshops are tricky. Books are our joy and our distraction from the task of creation.
Before my book got accepted I hung around the “D” section way too much. You know… Dawkins, de Bernieres, Defoe, Delaney, Delderfield, De Lillo… I was right up there. Or not. The shelves told me definitely not. Now I’m waiting. Pretty soon I’ll make the transition from consumer to consumed. And then I’ll need my indie even more – for advice, yes, but also inspiration and discussion. And, of course, enough espresso to get me through writing the next one.
Because what the best bookshops do – my local being one – is to turn a transaction into a relationship. The moment of reading may be intensely, blissfully, private. But books are, ultimately, a passion best shared. A great indie plays an active role in helping to nurture a love of reading in future generations. Just take a look at what goes on in schools – the author events, the talks – often, your indie is there working hard behind the scenes.
Yes, Amazon has good discounts, and is convenient, but consider a future in which our high streets are purely utilitarian (dry cleaners, convenience stores, interspersed with Poundland…). One day we’ll see and feel the loss.
So if you are fortunate enough to have a local indie bookshop, please use it before you lose it. Check out your local bookshop’s events, their book groups, kids activities etc. In fact, let’s say, I’ll meet you there – I’ll be waiting under “D”.