Rare and Used… and on the Net?

Eloise Hayes 5 October 2007

Browne’s on Mill Road has closed, and by the time you read this The Bookshop on Magdalene Street will have closed down too. The state of independent booksellers is lamented country-wide because of undercutting by supermarkets who sell the latest Harry Potter for a fiver and the meteoric rise of Internet booksellers like Amazon and Abebooks. Is the Internet the future of book-dealing, even in a hallowed bosom of academia and alleged technophobia such as Cambridge? Inside opinion is mixed…

In the far flung corner of Purbeck Road, Plurabelle Books occupies a warehouse containing not only forty-five thousand completely electronically catalogued (yet randomly shelved) books, several Cambridge student cataloguers, a staff kitchen housed within a displaced Victorian revolving door, but also friendly staff and an unusually large collection of old Maths books. Plurabelle also has numerous books for immediate sale, charity and recycling. Run by the slightly eccentric Dr. Michael Cahn (currently teaching book history in UCLA), Plurabelle seeks to provide “homes for books” and is “an Internet business” selling rare books. Without the Internet and world-wide postal delivery Plurabelle just could not match the right book to the right person. However, it is also a valuable and unique resource for visitors or residents of Cambridge. The Cambridge Book and Print Gallery and The Haunted Bookshop also have websites with many bells and whistles, and offer specialist service for rare books which have few predictable market trends because both the books and their seekers are rare and “supply does not always equal demand”. The former also houses occasional exhibitions as the name suggests, and the latter specializes in children’s books, from collectable editions of ‘girls’ school’ books to Harry Potter; indeed, the proprietor comments: “I often feel that what we are actually selling is a happy childhood to people who find refuge and solace in books as children themselves.”

These businesses participate successfully on the Internet, whether motivated by compassion for unwanted books or specific areas of interest, but most say that actual visits may be more successful than virtual visits. Indeed, the staffs acquire books through personal professional contacts, Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association fairs, donations, and even car-boot sales – rarely do they use the Internet to buy stock and their sites are permeated by the personal, enthusiastic note to be found in person.

It is, however, significant that both Browne’s and The Bookshop have shut down and did not have websites. Though Mr. Harding’s stall will still appear on the market on Tuesdays (paperbacks) and Thursdays (hardbacks), a combination of thieves, vandals, traffic volume and general “hassle” have led to the closure of the permanent shop opposite Magdalene.

However, refusal to bow to the pressure of the World Wide Web does not always result in doom and gloom. G. David’s bookshop, a family business run by the grandson of the original 1896 French founder and a small staff who “are not good with computers”, has resisted the pull of the net and boasts not only a fine collection of antiquarian books but also a fiercely loyal customer base, some of whom “come in four or five times a day just so they don’t miss anything”, or fly from far flung corners of the globe, and one of whom insists it is “the best bookshop in England … and I should know, I’ve been here forty-two years!”. Their resolve to avoid the Internet is bolstered not only by a solid stock which includes a first edition The Origin of Species valued at £50, 000 but also by a firm belief that, by maintaining their traditional service and personal touch, they will weather the storm and eventually become more widely known for being available only in Cambridge or over the phone and not one of the thirteen thousand anonymous independent booksellers on Abebooks.

So, personal service, enthusiasm and specialist knowledge seem to be the make-or-break factor amongst Cambridge booksellers, as all acknowledge David’s claim that, whilst the Internet is very useful, it’s not quite the same as visiting in person – and they’re right. The websites are very helpful and informative and could have written this article, but nothing quite manages to replace the smell of old books, the slightly cramped shelving and the glitter of those leather-bound, gold-lettered antiquarian wonders behind their glass doors.

Eloise Hayes