Blessed be the booksellers

If the second half of this decade has served to somewhat puncture the liberal ecosystem that we might once have thought supported the wider book business, the countervailing force to all this misfortune has surely been the revival of the high street bookshop, most positively in the form of independent booksellers.

For those with short memories, it’s worth recalling how far we have travelled. If Waterstones’ 2012 decision to sell the Kindle in-store felt like a kind of suicidal nadir, it also stirred the fightback, with the 2013 launch of Books are My Bag and the trade-wide initiative to reimagine Foyles’ flagship ahead of its relocation. The next year was the last when Nielsen BookScan recorded a sales decline in physical book sales, and the point when the Booksellers Association’s tracker of indie closures stopped accelerating.

The past week’s successful Booksellers Association conference, which saw 200 booksellers—including 80 newbies—gather in Birmingham, showed not just how far indies have come, but how they are also securing the future. Remarking at the event on the changed demographics of those in the audience and those entering bookselling, Oren Teicher, outgoing head of the American Booksellers Association, said: “There’s a whole lot of younger people in our business—as, obviously, there are here. That gives me an enormous sense of optimism... I think the torch has been passed.”

So, as Private Eye might say, “trebles all around”. Not so fast. 

As the early-release by Amazon of Margaret Atwood’s embargoed title The Testaments showed, there remains one rather large threat, along with the multitude of lesser trials. “It would be disingenuous not to understand the challenges that Amazon puts not just before the books sector, but retail economies overall,” added Teicher. BA president Nic Bottomley was also candid, calling for conversations that did not shy away from the difficulties—“sometimes sales can be a bit crap”, he said, or life kicks you in the johnson (my pun, and intended). Bottomley’s testy reaction to the suggestion that bookshops use “interactive screens” to draw in the yoof was also instructive. The future, he said, lies not in being screen-led showrooms, but “experience- heavy book-crammed spaces”. The lesson: unlike children (mine anyway), booksellers should be seen and heard.

Rising up the agenda were questions around the trade’s response to climate change, the issue so evocatively highlighted over the past six months by campaigners Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion (see this week's Lead Story). The opportunity here— alongside the reduction in the over-use of Jiffy bags and plastics (if you receive the issue in the post, you’ll notice our own shift to a compostable wrap)—is to roll it up into a trade-wide discussion on a too-wasteful supply chain. How books move around the system, and what the costs are, will be one of the biggest challenges we face in the next decade, from both an ethical and business perspective. Despite it all, life has been good to booksellers recently. Now we need to be good back.