If you love bookshops, do your bit to keep them alive
I have always believed that you can tell a great city from the fact that it has some great book stores. New York has Barnes and Noble, a ginormous space on 5th Avenue where you could easily get lost as you made your way from the new releases to the classics section. Singapore has the best Kinokuniya I have ever been to, stacked with every book you've heard of or wanted to read (and then some). London has its hallowed Hatchards, a book store positively bristling with history, redolent of the heady smell of paper, and filled to the brim with titles both new and old.
Some of my best holiday moments are spent in such book stores. I could easily spend the better part of the day simply browsing the aisles, picking up an old book of poetry I last read in college to see if it still speaks to me, glancing through the first chapter of the new book by a favourite author, discovering new writers as I trawl through all the titles on display.
So it was only fitting that the last day of my summer vacation found me in the Piccadilly branch of Waterstones. This is one of my favourite stores, not least because it encourages its staff to put up little handwritten recommendation cards about the books that they have enjoyed (and you might conceivable like), but also because it has these capacious red sofas on every floor, where you can sit and read the day away without anyone coming and bothering you or asking if you actually intend to buy anything.
I always start my visit by revisiting my childhood favourites, all those Enid Blytons that I devoured hungrily the moment I got them out of the school library. I chuckle at the adventures of the Five Find-Outers or the Famous Five. I giggle with fond reminiscence as I glance through the Mallory Towers series. I delight at stumbling across such childhood reading staples as The Black Beauty (which I knew by heart at one point).
Then it's time to pay my respects to the books that marked my teenage years and early youth, now reissued with ever-more-fabulous covers. P.G. Wodehouse gets a look-in as does Georgette Heyer. I am, in fact, sorely tempted to buy the books all over again simply because they look so beautiful and elegant (talk about buying a book by its cover!) but manage to resist the temptation by sheer force of will.
I distract myself by going over to the suspense and thriller section where all my favourite authors live. And if I can find a Val McDermid or a Karen Slaughter I haven't yet read, it goes right into my little cart. Only then do I wander over to the new releases to check if there is anything worth getting my teeth into on the flight back home. Yes, I was disappointed by the last Daniel Silva, but maybe the new one, The English Spy, will make me remember why I fell in love with his writing in the first place.
This time, however, as I stood at the till, waiting to pay for my purchases, I noticed something odd. Though the store was positively heaving with customers, everyone was browsing but hardly anyone was buying. Ah yes, of course. The book store was just a place where people stopped by to draw up their wish list. They then went home and ordered the books online, saving about 20 to 30 per cent in the process. Or even better, they downloaded it on their Kindles, so that they could carry around as many as 20 titles at a time.
Now, don't get me wrong. I have nothing against buying books online, though I have yet to do so myself. And I do read my books on Kindle as well, especially when I am travelling and need to save on luggage space and stay within weight restrictions. But it kills me a little to see people exiting a book store without having bought even the cheapest paperback.
Think about it. If we all behave in this way, treating the book store as a pit-stop on the way to making an electronic purchase (or download), how long do you think the actual physical bookshop will survive? How long will independent book stores with razor-thin margins manage to stay in business? And even large commercial chains will have to reexamine if they want to stay in brick-and-mortar locations when most book buying takes place online.
If this trend continues, it is only a matter of time before the bookshop begins to wither and die away. And when the last one closes its doors, where will all of us, dedicated book lovers, go to get our fix of that heady perfume of paper and the printed word?
If that scenario alarms you as much as it does me, then let's take a pledge this Sunday morning. If you love books and reading, then make a resolution to buy at least one book from a book shop every month. It doesn't have to be a pricey hardback, even the cheapest paperback will do, so long as you buy it from an actual book store.
It won't make that big a dent in your budget, but for book shops everywhere it could well mean the difference between life and death.