What keeps independent bookshops going?

22 January 2013

Lindsey Askin investigates what keeps them thriving, and why America is reading more than the UK…

Here’s an overdue lambast against the cause of confirmed Luddite bibliophiles: one of the main reasons that independent bookshops in America reported growth in the last quarter of 2012 is due to sales of independent e-readers, namely non-Kindles like the Kobo and the Nook. Without these devices many bookshops might have floundered. This is good news: it denies the notion that a penchant for caressing paper is the only signifier of a genuine booklover.

However, the other reason for the success of American independent bookshops was, in fact, the mass closure of Borders stores (a book and music retailer) across the country. After Borders closed, Americans didn’t turn to Amazon or even Barnes & Noble, and they did this without a tax scandal.

Will independent bookshops in the UK prosper after Amazon’s disgrace? Maybe there’s some hope from across the pond.

After Borders closed, Americans didn’t turn to Amazon or even Barnes & Noble, and they did this without a tax scandal. Will independent bookshops in the UK prosper after Amazon’s disgrace? Maybe there’s some hope from across the pond.

Released very recently, the 2013 Statistical Abstract of the United States found that there are three liquor stores for every single bookshop, and that Americans spend per annum only $100 on books, but $2,500 on quote ‘other entertainment’ (iPad, anyone?). But if Americans are spending this little on books, it probably has nothing to do with how much they read, but more to do with whether they instinctually turn to libraries first for their bedside reading, avoiding the consumer game altogether.

This is because, very hearteningly, American libraries are experiencing massive growth, along with those independent bookshops. Libraries in the US now loan e-books to their patrons, provide WiFi, and build cafes. Many libraries in Britain, on the other hand, are currently being stripped of funding and closing their doors. Our national pub-versus-bookshop ratio is probably even sadder than that, and then there’s the bloody battle between bookstore chain and independent.

Yet, Cambridge is an exceptional bubble in which to inwardly imagine your ‘average’ selection of bookshops. We possess an incredible quantity of dusty lone bookshops for a small city, all lovable and full of surprises. We have 115 libraries, versus 118 drinking establishments. There are also two gargantuan chain bookstores, which don’t fill me with dread, but reassure me that there are enough people out there to buy all those books in the first place.

However, beyond Cambridge, what’s the verdict for public libraries and independent bookshops? Newcastle and Durham county councils, amongst countless others, have been justifying the closures of two-thirds of their public libraries. They are not alone. Across the UK, public libraries close doors with a whimper, or resort to volunteer-running. 70% of UK libraries already offer some form of e-lending, but they are restricted by possessive publishers, and by demand, which is relatively low. In Germany, the opposite is taking place. Libraries are not just being made more e-reader friendly, but phone-friendly too: that’s right, in Germany you will even be able to borrow library books on your smartphone.

In Britain today you can see e-readers for sale in any WH Smith or Waterstones: will it be more common in the future to see them in our independent bookshops, as is the case Stateside? Whether you buy or borrow by habit, books and book-providers are undergoing incredible changes in this decade. E-reading still faces a lot of uncertain assessments by publishers and by the media. They are unsure about e-books. While I admit I have a Kindle which saves me a great deal of hassle with luggage, Amazon cannot replicate for me the tangible joy of flicking through dozens of books-I-really-can’t-afford-right-now, but would never come across on a computer screen.

Taking into all considerations, is the book versus e-book battle so dichotomous? According to a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, entitled The Rise of E-reading 88% of people who e-read are also frequent readers of ‘normal books’. Am I still being a booklover by purchasing a Kindle version of Life of Pi on Amazon for 20p, as I recently did? Or am I contributing to the pulping of tradition? Despite digital revolutions and traditionalists, it’s still good news that we’re reading so much. Ultimately, if you want to buy from independent bookshops and eschew internet retailers, you probably will anyway – and if you claim you can’t afford it? There are a few public libraries here that badly need patronage.