by Flora Dempsey
It is no secret that Amazon has toppled the reign of the bookshop. Amazon can offer you the same copy of Michelle Obama’s best-selling Becoming you might buy in Waterstones at £25, for £12.50. There is no competition. Yet we continue to flock bookshops in our thousands, only to shuffle away guiltily, knowing that what we want is available at a cheaper price online.
With physical book sales having plummeted by 37% in the last decade, it is surprising to find that so often bookshops are still abuzz with customers. So why do we continue to make these pilgrimages to bookshops?
Ask any reader what they love about books and one response stands out: the way that books look, feel and smell. Book buyers seek the experience of books. With book scent paraphernalia ranging from candles to new book scent spray, there are plenty of ways to fetishise the bookshop experience that we love without buying any books, thereby threatening their very existence.
But is it just bookshops that are suffering this fate? Perhaps not. The death of the high-street seems an imminent concern, “with 85,000 retail jobs lost in the first nine months of 2018.” Debenhams reported a significant decline in sales in-store due to an increasing preference for online shopping, noting that shoppers tend to come in, look around and return empty handed. This year Debenhams reported “a 2.2% decline in sales at established stores… as well as a slump in pre-tax profits of 84.6%.” The company is attempting to combat this by creating a ‘social shopping experience.’ They plan to provide in-store gyms and ‘experience focussed’ elements such as beauty bars and cafes, as well as loyalty schemes to encourage repeat visits and incentivise instore purchases.
So, if leading retailers are facing the same problems, what can bookshops do offer customers more of an active experience?
Well, making the experience of the bookshop profitable is already in motion. Waterstones host successful book groups in-store across the country to attract readers. Coffee shops have also appeared in-store, creating something of an intellectual meeting ground.
Ultimately, should we worry if the traditional bookshop disappears? Perhaps the traditional bookshop is already in its death throes, with most high street bookshops part of larger chains. Some seemingly independent bookstores such as those in Harpenden and Southwold are actually branches of Waterstones in disguise.
While large chains can provide the ‘social shopping experience’, the downside is that this can be predictable and homogenised. There’s little chance of a serendipitous book find. With an independent bookshop, stock is more likely to reflect local interests and the passions of staff. Larger, national stores attempt to replicate this with staff selecting books to promote, but ultimately one feels they are directed by what’s popular in the media and among celebrities. There’s little or no scope for individuality.
Perhaps our bookshops could survive if they provide a new space that is individual, interesting, social, collaborative and mind-opening. You can’t do all that on Amazon.