bookstore-sign103013I guess I’ve been guilty of thinking that there was nothing we could do to save them, but that is of course way premature, and also far too supine. If we think there’s any reason to, there are obviously things we could do to help: like going there and spending money. Whether we can succeed to save the bookstore we cannot know, but if we give up the struggle to save bookshops, we will certainly lose them. I assume that bookshops are “a good thing”. Most people in publishing do too. But it’s getting to be a long walk in Manhattan now to find a bookshop.

When he took over as editor of The Bookseller a couple of years ago, Philip Jones reports that “some publishers said he would have to change the title of the magazine to The Publisher, ‘because there wouldn’t be any bookshops left’.” Well, maybe there will be just one. Unless someone comes up with some plan to do something we may be headed down that road: and nobody seems to be suggesting anything too dramatic. Independent Bookstore Day is a good idea, but it is rather preaching (a very brief sermon) to the choir. Publishers are wrapped up in their own problems, and in any case there’s no real way to calculate just how damaging losing our bookstores would be. It’s one of these things you can’t know until it’s too late to do anything about it. In Britain we used to have the Net Book Agreement — a resale price maintenance deal which was scrapped for a variety of reasons. The explicit justification for it was to keep bookshops viable, and it did seem to do that. Nowadays the idea of making customers pay even slightly more for anything is a complete political no-no on both sides of the Atlantic.

“It is important that bookstores survive” says Sam Husain, soon to retire as chairman of Foyles in this BBC interview linked to via Shelf Awareness. But then he would, wouldn’t he? Foyles has recently opened a new flagship store in Charing Cross Road and must have a big nut to cover. Here’s a discussion of the future of bookstores from Publishing Perspectives. I doubt if we would be wise to sit back and rely on government action for the salvation of the bookshop, but of course these escalating high street rents are a problem everywhere. It seems as if only international clothing chains can afford to move in when any vacancy occurs. The homogenization of retail across the world makes it a bit silly for those shopping tourists to pay for the airfare — aren’t they getting almost the same experience at home? If we could decide bookstores were an unambiguous good, and fear of their loss not just a sentimental reaction to an uncertain future, could cities not subsidize rents for bookstores and indeed cultural institutions of all kinds? I fear that such paternalistic use of tax funds is vanishingly unlikely nowadays though.

Paradoxically perhaps, there seems to be a certain amount of optimism in the small bookstore world. Maybe if you are small enough, and/or serve a specialist niche market, you can still make it, just not in the High Street. Will people want to seek out these places and go there for prompts on what they might want to read next? There’s a nice piece in the New Milford Spectrum (linked via The Passive Voice) on the 1-year anniversary of The Book Nook’s new ownership. David Gronbach, one of the owners, neither of whom had been involved in retail before, said his previous attitude to the bookstore had been “Why would I have them order the book when I can get it from Amazon?” which is exactly what I did. I gave no further thought to it until I saw the store was closing. I understand now what I failed to then; the difference between value and price. A book has a price; a bookstore has value.”

The real question to the skeptics and supporters of market efficiency is whether that value is enough for them to do anything about it?