Ever since I learned to read as a child, I’ve been a great fan of the written word. I grew up with Swallows and Amazons, the Hardy boys and the Famous Five. I had hundreds of books and borrowed even more from the local library. Even now as an adult, I usually have at least two or three on the go. And my house is, basically, a big bookshelf with a door and a roof.
When it comes to reading, I’ll admit readily to being a bit of a traditionalist. I love the feel of a book in my hands and like being able to lug one or two around in my briefcase or in my bag when I go on holiday. I sometimes buy books in the bookshops in town, but generally hear about something interesting from friends, in the paper or online and end up buying it online.
Recently, though, I’ve bought myself an Amazon Kindle (well, I bought it as a birthday present for my wife, but I’m not sure she’s actually got her mitts on it yet) and have downloaded a few books that I hadn’t quite got around to reading. I wouldn’t say that I’m a complete Kindle convert, but it is a handy way of keeping a few books at my fingertips and I can see myself using it more and more.
Then I read Tim Waterstone’s article in the Guardian explaining how, in his view, Amazon is destroying the UK book industry and annihilating local and independent bookshops across the country. This puts me in a bit of a quandary. Can I be a fan of books and continue to buy them online?
The conundrum is this. I love small, independent bookshops with well curated stock and knowledgeable, enthusiastic staff. And I would like dearly to be able to spend a lazy hour or two on a Sunday afternoon browsing a few titles and checking out the latest from my favourite authors while savouring a freshly brewed coffee and stroking the owner’s cat. But unfortunately, I don’t live in a Lucy Dillon novel and I don’t happen to have a branch of Daunt Books just around the corner.
We do have a small, independent bookshop in our town, but it’s cramped, dreary and only stocks local footpath maps and things about the second world war. And every time I go in to give it another try, the lady who runs it either ignores me or stares at me like I’m about to steal the carpets and curtains. I would love to do my bit to keep it in business, but to be honest it isn’t worth it. Some places just have to die, and my local bookshop is one of them.
If bookshops are going to compete with the likes of Amazon, then they need to do what Amazon cannot. They need to be friendly places that bring people and books together. They need to really know and understand their customers in a way that an algorithm is unable to achieve. They need to generate a warmth and passion that you can’t get from a website or an app.
I take great pleasure from reading and I’m happy to pay for the books that I buy. And if I know that the books have been chosen, ordered and presented with enthusiasm and care, then I’m happy to forego the discounts that Amazon can offer me or the convenience that I can get from my Kindle. But I need to know that the person selling them to me cares as much about the books – and my enjoyment of them – as I do.