Use your book­shop… be­fore you lose it

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

My favourite chil­dren’s book­shop has closed down, cit­ing im­pos­si­bly high rents and rates. The Lion and Uni­corn in Rich­mond has been a part of my life since we moved to south-west Lon­don 30 years ago. But it has also helped my chil­dren learn to read, love and de­vour books. It lent a very spe­cial iden­tity to its cor­ner of the town. Just across the street stands a grown-ups’ book­shop, The Open Book, to which lucky chil­dren would grad­u­ate in due course. The Open Book is still trad­ing: but for how long? Af­ter all, its child­ish neighour wont be there to per­form the same mag­i­cal task for my grand­chil­dren that it did for my chil­dren: lead­ing young minds to ques­tion, dis­cover and love learn­ing.

What had be­come known to lo­cals as “Book­shop Cor­ner” now boasts a restau­rant and the usual hair­dressers, cafés and clothes shops. No more Satur­day af­ter­noons with queues of chil­dren wait­ing to speak to an author – their own celebrity idol – and ask not only for a sig­na­ture but also why he or she wrote in a par­tic­u­lar way, or whether the hero tri­umphs in the end.

I know how much that con­tact mat­ters, be­cause I’ve been in that queue and seen how the book writ­ten by some­one my daugh­ter had just met was trans­formed into a trea­sured ob­ject, quite dif­fer­ent from any book her teach­ers could pos­si­bly rec­om­mend.

This en­gage­ment with au­thors, I be­lieve, helps chil­dren un­der­stand the creative process. Books are vi­tal in form­ing life­long habits of dis­cov­ery. This is not just a lit­tle lo­cal lament.

All over the coun­try book­shops are clos­ing. It feels as though they are in the front­line of the bat­tle to save the high street. The Book­sell­ers As­so­ci­a­tion re­ported that in 2012 the num­ber of in­de­pen­dent book­shops on the high street de­clined for the sixth year in a row. Dur­ing that year 73 closed but – a glim­mer of hope per­haps? – 39 opened. One of the most dra­matic statis­tics is that at the same time, in fic­tion, dig­i­tal book sales were up 149 per cent.

As an author I can­not af­ford to be, nor am I, en­tirely op­posed to buy­ing books on­line. Many of the 9,000 or so mem­bers of the or­gan­i­sa­tion I chair, the So­ci­ety of Au­thors, be­lieve Ama­zon has boosted their sales and their pro­file. Self-pub­lished au­thors praise Ama­zon as the great new hope that en­ables them to see their work launched, and gives them a higher per­cent­age of roy­al­ties.

We have (al­most) all en­joyed the con­ve­nience of or­der­ing a book we just thought of at midnight, or of tak­ing an e-reader on hol­i­day loaded up with dozens of ti­tles. So let’s not waste time wish­ing we could put the ge­nie back in the bot­tle. In­stead let’s work with dig­i­tal, but view it as a sec­ond-best where there’s an al­ter­na­tive on of­fer. Mean­while, let the fight­back be­gin. This is a bat­tle that au­thors must spear­head, so that Ama­zon does not dom­i­nate the book-pro­duc­ing in­dus­try. If their dom­i­na­tion suc­ceeds, there will not only be fewer high street book­shops, but even­tu­ally fewer books. For the best book­shops boast en­thu­si­as­tic as­sis­tants who will guide you to a book you may not know ex­isted, a book that may never sell more than a cou­ple of thou­sand copies, a rare gem of whose ex­is­tence you wouldn’t oth­er­wise know if you re­lied on on­line al­go­rithms telling you “this is a book we think you will en­joy”.

The main thing au­thors can do is to en­gage more with book­shops, both lo­cally and those that have a con­nec­tion with some as­pect of their book. I know there is no pay­ment (other than in­di­rectly), and it’s time-con­sum­ing, but en­gag­ing with one’s read­ers is, in my view, a truly en­rich­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

They will tell you things about your book (yes, even if it’s a novel) you didn’t know. Giv­ing talks about That Woman, my bi­og­ra­phy of Wal­lis Simpson, I am con­stantly told snip­pets of gossip: one or two pieces of in­for­ma­tion im­parted af­ter a talk have led to ex­cit­ing new dis­cov­er­ies. Au­thors’ ap­pear­ances help to sell books. Be­fore a talk, peo­ple of­ten say they re­ally mustn’t buy any more books. But af­ter the talk they do buy.

They want their new book not only signed but of­ten dated, with a record of place and per­haps even a per­son­alised in­scrip­tion: “To Mary, who may find some echoes in this story”. The book by then has en­hanced value; it con­tains a lit­tle piece of both author and reader.

Book fes­ti­vals mostly (but not en­tirely) pre­fer celebri­ties or prizewin­ning au­thors, but there is a gap in the mar­ket, which en­ter­pris­ing book­shops can fill, for the en­er­getic, less fa­mous author to tell a story. The So­ci­ety of Au­thors is al­ways happy to help put author and book­shop to­gether. Of course, with a novel such as Rachel Joyce’s in­spir­ing The Un­likely Pil­grim­age of Harold Fry, a cam­paign to have a talk in ev­ery town where Harold stopped is ob­vi­ous, but the strat­egy can be ap­plied for other books too.

Some book­shops are al­ready event-happy. If they don’t have the space, they work in con­junc­tion with a li­brary or school. But the re­al­ity is this: those that do not ex­ude a warm, wel­com­ing feel­ing will not sur­vive merely by mak­ing cus­tomers feel it’s their duty to sup­port their lo­cal book­shop. To be­come an ex­cit­ing des­ti­na­tion, book­sell­ers may need to of­fer en­thu­si­as­tic sales as­sis­tants, a cof­fee shop on the side, a place to sit and read, book-re­lated gifts.

I’ve been lucky to ex­pe­ri­ence two of the best. Sil­verdell Ice Cream Par­lour and Book Shop in Kirkham, Lan­cashire, cre­ates bespoke ice creams. For my bi­og­ra­phy of Jen­nie Churchill, they came up with the most de­li­cious Man­hat­tan Cock­tail flavoured ice cream, of which I was al­lowed just a tiny sam­ple be­fore my talk.

Mr B’s Book Emporium in Bath has de­vised a “Read­ing Spa” voucher which en­ti­tles the lucky re­cip­i­ent to a one-on-one book chat in their sump­tu­ous Bib­lio­ther­apy Room with an ad­viser over tea or cof­fee and slice of de­li­cious cake. Your bib­lio­ther­a­pist will in­tro­duce you to a tower of books spe­cially se­lected to suit your read­ing tastes. How bril­liantly in­ven­tive is that!

Pub­lish­ers can help by em­pha­sis­ing the phys­i­cal­ity of books as beau­ti­ful ob­jects that must be held, touched and ad­mired in a shop by cre­at­ing fab­u­lous end pa­pers, silk rib­bon mark­ers or even of­fer­ing spe­cial per­son­alised ex­tras if you buy it from a book­shop. Lo­cal govern­ment can help by pro­vid­ing park­ing con­ces­sions – per­haps a scheme whereby cus­tomers who buy £20 worth of books get free park­ing or a free park­ing day?

This is re­ally part of a wider cul­tural de­bate and I be­lieve the habit of cul­ture should be as much a fun­da­men­tal as­pect of the en­vi­ron­ment as is, for ex­am­ple, the coun­try’s ar­chi­tec­tural her­itage. High street book­shops, lo­cal theatres, li­braries all un­der­line the im­por­tance of books, cul­ture and learn­ing. We need to fight to have towns and vil­lages with char­ac­ter, iden­tity and depth which show we have an in­ter­est in the fu­ture of that world for the next gen­er­a­tion.

But a fi­nal piece of ad­vice for au­thors. When a reader ap­proaches ex­plain­ing that they won’t be buy­ing your book to­day as they al­ready have it on an e-reader, stop mak­ing them feel guilty. Feel sorry for them in­stead: it won’t be signed, they can’t put Post-it notes on pages they want to re­mem­ber, and it won’t fur­nish a room.

That Woman: The Life of Wal­lis Simpson, Duchess of Wind­sor by Anne Sebba (Phoenix Books) is avail­able from Tele­graph Books. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.tele­graph.co.uk

Sad end­ing: Anne Sebba with her grand­daugh­ter Bella at the in­de­pen­dent book­shop, The Lion and Uni­corn, in Rich­mond, shortly be­fore its clo­sure

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