Keystone species

The first thing I do when I travel to a new city or town is hunt for the independent bookshops. I believe you can gauge the cultural health of an area by the number of independent bookshops and their ratio to, say, outlets of Gap.

Independent bookshops are more than just an indicator species in the cultural ecology of a city. They are what is called a keystone species, one that has a disproportionately large effect on its environment relative to its number. Like the architectural keystone that supports an arch, from whence the term derives, a keystone species is defined by this: if you remove it, the structure collapses.

Independent bookshops are the keystone species of our cultural ecosystem. When they are endangered, the other species are imperiled as well. When they flourish, so do we all. Luckily, we know this somehow. Independent booksellers are an adaptable and resilient lot, and readers and writers are loyal and stubborn, and together we form a strong relationship of symbiotic mutualism.

My books are not easy to describe or categorise. People have told me this. They are ungainly things that seem to fall between genres and unwittingly confound the machinery of mass marketing. The way books like mine find their way into readers’ hands is through word of mouth and the kind of personal and patient hand-selling that independent booksellers are famous for, and I’m grateful for this.

But my gratitude is about more than just my particular books finding readers. Books like mine exist in the niches and at the edges of our cultural ecosystem, and without independent booksellers to hold open a place for them on the shelf, they would be far less likely to get written. This shelf space allows for the possibility of books like mine to exist, and this is not a passive, static state; it’s both active and dynamic, because every possibility sparks another, in an infinitely generative effect described, by author Steven Johnson, as the adjacent possible. It’s a beautiful concept, “a kind of shadow future”, he says, “hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.” The adjacent possible is how literature evolves.

So this is how I experience independent bookshops—as a key part of a vibrant and evolving cultural ecosystem, alive with infinite possibilities. And this is why I am so thrilled that A Tale for the Time Being has been honoured with the Independent Booksellers Week Book Award. 

As a small organism in a vast cultural ecology, I am indebted to independent booksellers for enabling me to write and thrive. And on behalf of writers and readers and publishers everywhere, I am grateful to you for keeping our possibilities alive.

Ruth Ozeki is the author of A Tale for the Time Being (Canongate)