Today, on the way home from looking after my little nephew, I stopped in at WHSmith. I saw the poster for their summer promotions in the window, and remembered that I had wanted to read The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker for a while, so I went in. This was the one in Pinner, north west London. It has a decent size book section at the back on the left, but like all WHSmith shops the books on offer are displayed proudly with covers out, while the rest are jammed in the bookshelves and you can’t really browse comfortably.
I stood around and scanned the offer shelves for a while and suddenly thought, god it’s been ages since I was in a bookshop!
We used to have a big Waterstones near me in Watford town centre and I popped in there almost every time I was in Watford, even if I didn’t buy anything (should have bought more things, clearly). It closed just before Christmas (I saw the tweet announcing this on Christmas Eve, real mood killer), and since then I have visited the big Waterstones in Piccadilly for a book event and once or twice when shopping, but that’s it.
And there are literally no other bookshops near me. There’s a WHSmith in Watford, but I don’t really count that. They just have a book section. Not the same.
Waterstones as a company are still doing pretty well, as far as I know, so it must just be that the population of Watford and the surrounding areas don’t read a lot. SHAME ON YOU ALL! The shop had been there since the mid-nineties, so to me that indicates a decline in reading and/or book buying in recent years. I blame eReaders and people’s laziness. Finding out that my local Waterstones had closed was truly gutting; I was genuinely upset. It was a lovely big shop with three floors of books, one being entirely for children. They also sold really nice cards and gift-y things like Emma Bridgewater and Cath Kidston stuff, and arty stationery. The staff were always really polite and helpful, and I liked that one of them had also read the Hans Fallada biography I bought there. My fellow blogger Sarah Watkins worked there and had done since it opened, and I was gutted for her too.
More than all of that I was devastated that a shop like this couldn’t survive in the nearest town to where I live. And yet the disgustingly bright sweet shop up the way stayed open, and the gift shop selling tat, and all the other shops that do nothing but encourage consumerism (which I’m not necessarily against, but there is more to life). I saw it as anti-intellectualism, something that I cannot stand and that makes me really angry. I had several existential moments of worrying whether the human race were becoming too moronic and obsessed with instant gratification to even need a bookshop anymore. It was unpleasant.
While I personally have always loved reading and books in general, there is also a principal to the things. Printing and the production of books (in any form) is a cornerstone of civilisation as we know it and a vital element in the historical intellectualisation of ordinary people. Books were once, many moons ago, only available to rich people or academics, but now anyone can buy them and read them. They are accessible, cheap (mostly), and cover topics to suit every taste; they also cater to every level of reading ability, so you don’t have to be a ‘clever clogs’ to be a reader.
Bookshops are important in an economic sense for the publishing and book selling industry, but they are also important to the industry and to people for a greater reason: books are wonderful. Though I’m not a fan of WHSmith (their shops are always really badly laid out and the staff are generally unhelpful) I am very glad that they sell books. While eReaders and eReading apps are super popular, I think there will always be paper books. Why not? I saw this on Twitter recently, as it was retweeted by a lot of people (and found it again today via a search):
I have no idea if Stephen Fry actually said this, but it doesn’t matter. The argument is true. While I don’t really like Kindles and eReaders and am happy to stick with books, I agree with this point. They’re a ‘threat’ but not in the sense that books will die out. They’re an alternative.
Anyway. My point is that books will always sell in some way or another and not everything is better online. While Amazon are buggering up bookshop chains, people are rediscovering a love of independent bookshops and ‘unusual’ places and things. In an age of mass consumerism and advertising, I think we are all beginning to re-appreciate personal taste, shopping experiences, knowledgeable staff and proper shops. I need bookshops. We need bookshops. Support yours.