This is why bookshops are the heart of our communities
Bookshops conjure up such vivid images for readers. Whether it’s stacks of books piled in every corner of a cosy store, or a minimal space with meticulously designed displays, there is something undeniably magical about stepping into a bookshop. It’s delightful to browse each thoughtfully curated category, to find a new book with the hope it will soon join your list of favourites to return to time and time again. But, like so many industries, physical bookshops are struggling against the might of online retailers.
As anyone involved in the bookish community will know, we’re a passionate bunch of people. Which is why it’s wonderful to see campaigns to support book selling and reading gaining traction. In Australia there’s Love Your Bookshop Day and the Australian Reading Hour. Here in the UK there’s Independent Bookshop Week and Books Are My Bag.
I’ve partnered with Books Are My Bag this year to help promote the annual Bookshop Day, which is taking place on Saturday, October 5. I’ll also be championing the Children’s Fiction shortlist in the Books Are My Bag Readers Awards (check back later this week for more on that).
Books Are My Bag is a national campaign run by the Booksellers Association to celebrate the magical and community of bookshops. Each year the campaign releases an exclusive new tote bag, this year designed by Yehrin Tong. Find a book store near you here.
Why are bookshops so important?
Retail behemoth Amazon has undoubtedly changed the retail landscape. The number of independent retail businesses in the US has dropped by 40% over 15 years in the US.
Kristen from Australian independent bookshop Squishy Minnie explained the pricing differences between mega retailers and small stores in this Instagram post.
Essentially, the larger the retailer, the bigger the wholesale discount. Kristen says this can be such a big barrier for small businesses that they’ll buy stock from big retailers to sell on because it’s cheaper than ordering direct from publishers.
“Here in our ace community lots of people actively choose to support us and other independent bookstores,” Kristen says. “Generally folks think that the extra money from the higher price we sell our books at goes to pay our overheads (staffing, rent etc) or that it might even go into our profits but actually, that difference in price between us and the big retailers just goes into paying for the book - the expenses to run our business are on top of that.”
Although Squishy Minnie is an Australian store, the same is true in the UK. Buying from your local bookshop means your money is going back into your community.
Amazon uses loopholes to legally avoid paying more tax than their high street competitors. Add to that reports of Amazon treating its workers appallingly, and in many ways the decision to visit a book shop becomes an ethical choice.
The ability to browse just doesn’t translate to the online marketplace. Yes, those websites and apps are getting better at recommending us other books but it’s not the same as walking along, pulling books off shelves and seeing what sparks fly.
As Clare Mackintosh writes in this heartfelt letter to booksellers: “Who needs algorithms, when you have booksellers?”
The research confirms this. Studies from Enders Analysis found serendipity and discovery account for as much as two-thirds of general book sales in the UK. While online giants might be able to beat small bookshops on price, this research shows they can’t compete on market knowledge.
“Consumer behaviour is highly directed online. Browsing is an activity we retain for bookshops and magazines,” writes Douglas McCabe from Enders Analysis. “Without bookshops, publishing would have to rethink its model at every level; and the role of general books and reading would be rewritten forever.”
Building communities around our love of books
The best bookshops aren’t just retail spaces. They’re the beating heart of a community and its arts scene. Bookshops will often host special author events or support literary festivals, which encourages readers and authors to connect in new and exciting ways.
Damian Barr writes in The Observer: “To reduce bookshops to selling is to mistake writing for typing or reading as a workout for your eyes. The best indies don’t stock everything – every book must fight a sort of intellectual Hunger Games to win a space on the shelves. If you get to know them, they get to know you and your tastes far better than any algorithm can. Indies that don’t just survive but thrive do so because they celebrate and anchor a community – Gay’s the Word, Crediton Community Bookshop, The Second Shelf.”
In some cases, this support has been the catalyst for expanded festivals or new literary prizes. Readings managing director Mark Rubbo explains the Melbourne Writers Festival evolved from a Readings event program into a government-funded festival. So too did The Stella Prize, now a major Australian literary award.
Readings has also created a charity where 10% of profits are donated back into the community for literacy and arts endeavours. That concept started as a donation tin for people posting share-house accommodation ads in stores, or wanting gift wrapping. The Readings Foundation has donated $1.2 million since 2009.
In a Wheeler Centre article in 2013, manager of Sydney’s Pages and Pages Jon Page said community was great “but it will not save bookshops”. “What bookshops are facing at the moment is battle over relevancy in the changing retail environment. The bookshop needs to be the primary place readers seek out books, whatever the format, otherwise only a handful are going to survive.” Sadly, Pages and Pages closed in August.
Now, more than ever, we need to support our bookshops and champion this industry which has changed the lives of so many readers.
A few simple ways to support your bookshop…
Buy books: This is the easiest way to support your bookshop. Head in and search for something you’ve been meaning to read, or look at the recommendations in-store.
Chat to booksellers: Stuck for what to read? Talk to booksellers. Ask for their recommendations. Chat to them about your favourite books and share the joy of finding a fellow word nerd.
Review your favourite books: Shout about your favourite books on social media. If you loved a book, tell your friends. Word of mouth recommendations make up a big part of those discovery book sales in the UK.
Give books as gifts: Christmas is coming up and you know what’s super easy to wrap? That’s right: a book! Books make fabulous gifts. And if you’ve got someone who’s tricky to buy for, get them a gift card for your local bookshop. If you’re in the UK, you can purchase National Book Tokens which can be spent at thousands of bookshops nation-wide including Waterstones and WHSmith.
A little extra reading…
A heartfelt letter to booksellers from Clare Mackintosh. Read it here.
The story of Yorkshire bookshop Imagined Things. Read it here.
How Indie bookstores are fighting back. Read it here.
If you fancy exploring London, check out this list of the city’s best specialist bookshops. Read it here.
I am working on the Bookshop Day campaign with Books Are My Bag in conjunction with National Book Tokens. However, all opinions in this post are my own.