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INDEPENDENT BOOKSHOPS
14/08/2014

by Anthony Gardner
 For the window of his bookshop, Irvine Welsh has chosen Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and William Burroughs’ The Place of Dead Roads. Terry Pratchett’s shop, Narrativia, is displaying Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves. A few doors along, Tony Parsons has shelves stacked with John le Carré and Mario Puzo. Welcome to the newest address in bookselling, Author Street.

     None of these shops have a physical existence: they are part of  a recently launched website, myindependentbookshop.co.uk, on which anyone can post a selection of books they love. If another reader buys a book you recommend, a percentage of the price goes to your favourite real bookshop. Penguin Random House, who created the website, deny that it is trying to compete with Amazon – but to those who hate Amazon’s Godzilla-like dominance of the market, myindependentbookshop is a heartening salvo in the fight-back by traditional booksellers.

     ‘I love the idea of this website,’ says Felicity Rubinstein, co-owner of the Notting Hill bookshop and literary agency Lutyens & Rubinstein, ‘because what they’ve identified is that Amazon and its algorithms aren’t personal – and the beauty of an independent bookstore is that it provides you with recommendations from people you trust.’

     With fewer than 1,000 independent bookshops left in the UK, the success of Lutyens & Rubinstein – which opened five years ago, when the future looked blacker than printers’ ink – seems almost miraculous. But take a bus down to Chelsea and you will find something stranger still. Tucked away off the King’s Road, John Sandoe Ltd (established in 1957, and with a customer list including Sir Tom Stoppard and Sir Elton John) has just expanded, increasing its floor space by a third.

     ‘We had a chance to acquire the next-door premises,’ explains the shop’s co-owner Johnny de Falbe, ‘and it certainly didn’t seem an irrational thing to do. To say no would have felt awful – really like turning up one’s toes.’

     According to de Falbe, the disappearance of hundreds of independent bookshops has increased people’s appreciation of the ones that survive: ‘We may have lost some customers, but overall we’ve gained in trade, precisely because of Amazon. The feel of the physical space, and the idea of a bookshop as a nice place to go, matters to people more than ever – and they will make a considerable effort to come here, both from this country and from abroad.’

     The main danger to shops like his, he says, is the notion that they are doomed, which threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy: ‘Of course bookshops are under strain – from Amazon, and high rents and rates; but the number of people who come in and say, “I didn’t think shops like this still existed” is absolutely startling. They don’t even look for a bookshop – they just go online.’

     It was to counter this mindset that the Booksellers’ Association and the Publishers’ Association launched the Books Are My Bag campaign last autumn. Devised by M. & C. Saatchi, and embracing bookshop chains as well as independents, it used photographs of celebrities such as Bill Nighy, Damian Lewis and Jamie Oliver carrying bags stamped with the campaign slogan – an exercise which will be repeated this October. The Booksellers’ Association is also behind Independent Booksellers’ Week (28th June to 5th July), created – according to the association’s head of membership services, Meryl Halls – ‘to help booksellers shout about how great they are’. It includes signings by authors and the launch of books which will not be on sale elsewhere until two months later.

     The cause has been helped by sympathetic celebrities and respected authors investing in bookshops. The model Lily Cole has become a backer of Claire de Rouen, a specialist in art and photography books in the West End of London, while in the USA the novelist Anne Patchett received nationwide publicity when she opened her own Parnassus Books in Nashville. ‘Amazon doesn’t get to make all the decisions,’ she declared; ‘the people can make them, by choosing how and where they spend their money. If what a bookstore offers matters to you, then shop at a bookstore.’

     In some countries, bookshops enjoy government protection: France’s policy of ‘bibliodiversity’ limits the extent to which books can be discounted, while in Germany they can only be sold at the price set by the publishers. Felicity Rubinstein would like British business rates to reflect booksellers’ resources; she insists, however, that a bookshop such as hers must not be seen as ‘an adorable, outdated thing that needs charity: people have to think of us as a better alternative which is vital for the publishing industry.’ Because Amazon and the large chains are so focussed on blockbusters, ‘It will be harder and harder for certain kinds of books to be published if independents disappear: there will be no platform for something like the middle years of Hilary Mantel, which in turn means no Wolf Hall.’ She is not entirely critical of Amazon – ‘To have any book that’s ever been published delivered the next day is absolutely incredible. But what Amazon can’t do is grow little shoots of grass: there needs to be a germinating nursery, which is what independent bookshops are.’    

     Her reservation about myindependentbookshop.co.uk is that ‘it highlights the beauty of one click [shopping]’. Lutyens & Rubinstein prefer to engage directly with the public by organising authors’ talks in their shop and selling books at events such as the local 5x15 talks. Diversification has also worked well for them: ‘We sell lovely reading glasses from Paris and painted books by an American artist, and we’ve designed our own cups and saucers with the first line of a famous novel on them.’

     In the end, says Rubinstein, ‘Independents have to concentrate on what they can do differently from everyone else that’s selling books – and also trust their customers. People aren’t stupid: they can see that if you love books and like coming to this shop you have to support it, and it’s worth paying a bit more – like buying meat from the butcher down the road who can tell you where the cow grazed.’

 

GREAT EUROPEAN INDEPENDENTS

 

BELGIUM

De Dry Coppen, 11 Schrijnmakersstraat, Leuven. A relaxed, elegant ‘book café’ (it also serves wine) in a historic quarter of the university city.

FRANCE

Shakespeare & Company, 37 rue de la Bûcherie, Paris. Less idiosyncratic than in its Bohemian heyday, but still wonderfully hugger-mugger.

GERMANY

Marga Schoeller Bücherstube, 33 Knesebeckstrasse, Berlin. A former home from home for Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse – and more recently David Bowie. 

GEORGIA

Prospero’s Books, 34 Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilsi. Situated in a charming courtyard, it caters equally for locals and foreigners, and proudly roasts its own coffee.

GREECE

Politeia, 1-3 Asklipiou, Athens. Popular with students, a multi-level labyrinth with a reputation for bargain prices and helpful staff.

IRELAND

Chapters, Ivy Exchange, Parnell Street, Dublin. A cavernous treasury of books (one floor for new, one for second-hand); particularly good for graphic novels.

ITALY

Anglo American Book Co, 102 Via della Vitte, Rome. Exclusively English-language, hidden away near Piazza di Spagna; strong on history and philosophy.

PORTUGAL

Livraria Lello, 144 Rua das Carmelitas, Porto. Over 100 years old, an architectural extravaganza with a neo-Gothic façade and Art Nouveau spiral staircase.

SWEDEN

Hedengrens, 4 Stureplan, Stockholm. The smartest bookshop in the city, with an idiosyncratic circular layout and 60,000 books in eight languages.