Use your bookshop… before you lose it
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