A penny change, or why book shops are killing themselves

The Strand

This is a proper book store, and one of the best in the world. The Strand, in New York, is the type of shop where you can spend an entire day. The staff know what they're doing, too. They aren't just there because the clothing shop wasn't hiring.

This past week, I had a writing job that required the use of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. After a failed attempt to borrow the book from a local library, I resigned myself to purchasing it.

I went online to check the price and stock availability at Waterstones. I don’t trust just going into the local branch. The general stock in the Weston Waterstones isn’t very high end (a look at the shop’s Twitter account is fairly depressing, too). One of its biggest events over the past few years has been the in-store appearance and book signing by Katie Price.

According to their site, the book was in stock. The price listed was £6.19 with free delivery, and I was also given the option of collecting from the shop. I needed it the same day, though, or at least by the next morning. I also wanted to pay cash for it.

That said, I did toy with the idea of using Amazon’s next morning delivery. The drawback was that, on top of the £6 for the book, I would have to pay around £9 for express delivery.

Having interrupted Adam’s work day a few times already, I opted for the bus. My long-standing dislike of FirstBus meant I’d wait for the less frequent WebberBus that travels on the same route. (My faith in the new company was misplaced, it turned out. Having bought a return ticket, I stood in the cold for 45 minutes while three First buses came by and two Webber buses didn’t show or were late.)

Back to the book buying. I went to the shop, found the book, and went to pay for it. It came up at the RRP of £9.99. I commented that it was only £6 something online. The shop girl just shrugged and said, ‘Yeah. They’re usually cheaper online.’

Yesterday I returned the book out of spite.

I’m a frequent lamenter of disappearing book stores. Totalled up, I have spent years of my life wandering stacks of books. I’d rather buy a book than borrow it from a library. I am a bibliophile and enjoy the act of selecting a book. Of going through a shop and feeling the bindings, selecting one, reading the first page to see if I like it.

I wish there were more book stores in Weston. I’d even be happy with a few more in Bristol. I’d travel for the right book store.

But when I get financially penalized for buying in-store and not online (and it would have been even less had I been able to download it for a Kindle), it’s hard to argue for the ongoing existence of bricks-and-mortar shops. It’s hard to argue for them when the stock is slanted towards trashy novels, low-budget horror tomes, and tourist books about the region.

All in, I was only a pound or so out from what it would have cost for Amazon to have it to me by the next morning.

In this case, I knew the book I needed. No browsing was needed, no tactile experience of choosing a book. There was no need for the book store experience. In the end, I regretted opting for that experience.

If people want book stores to continue through the current economic slump, it’s not just a matter of campaigning and having woe is me monologues about literacy. The survival of book stores will require the shops themselves to change. They can’t be undercut by their own virtual presences. They can’t offer a selection that is almost insultingly narrow.

At one point, in another town, I would make the journey into town just for the book store. A wander around would be my only reason for the journey. It would be a chance to see if there was anything new published. I could find academic books and popular books.

I can’t do that here, and it sucks. My only choice is to buy online now, with no chance to flick through the book, feel its weight in my hands, carry it around and compare it to other books.

Online book sellers like Amazon are brilliant. They make a much larger stock available to purchase. Amazon makes it possible to buy obscure books that I couldn’t possibly expect a shop to carry.

But Amazon isn’t the reason for the failure of traditional book sellers. The ways those shops conduct their own business is the reason for their failure. Knowing that you can buy the same title for £3 less from the same company causes their failure. It isn’t even a choice of independent book seller versus big corporation. It’s the same corporation at the local or online level.

I often go to town and barely give Waterstones a glance. It lets me down time and time again, and I think this latest experience might be the end of my relationship with it. I would love to have it change, but I don’t expect any change. I didn’t get much from my £10 note, and I don’t think I’ll get much from the shop, ever.

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About jeninher30s

A writer and procrastinator.

One response to “A penny change, or why book shops are killing themselves”

  1. khristopia says :

    One of my favourite places to be is a big independent bookseller’s here. High ceilings, chairs where customers can sit and read in store, and a fantastic selection of real books. There are other bookstores still around that sell the hyped-up kind of books without much variety (Dan Brown, Twilight series, self-help fads and Oprah’s book club), so that’s how they’re staying in business. But the one I like holds cultural events, seminars, has an in-house restaurant and bakery. I love the in-person shopping experiences in places like these and I will always go for making the trip there (it’s also in a very accessible area of town) over buying something online. I have no interest in an e-reader. I like seeing my collection of books on a shelf, turning the pages and smelling the paper.

    So I fear for the death of bookstores. I really hope this one never closes, but their customer service is far better than your experience here.

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