Given the “perfect storm” that has engulfed UK bookshops in the past 20 years, we should be a good deal more surprised by how many shops have survived—and opened—than by how many have closed.
We hardly need reminding of every challenge that has emerged to feel their restraint in aggregate, particularly for independents threatened by waves of disruption from the rise of the chains, discounting, the intrusion of supermarkets, the coming of Amazon and the e-book explosion.
Meanwhile, broader consumer and technology trends have provided further headwinds. Roughly simultaneously there was a deep recession, and Apple revolutionised the internet and the telecoms marketplaces with its iPhone. Not surprisingly, reading time has been in steady decline, particularly among younger demographics.
Such economic and technological logic has unraveled a wide variety of industries, including music, newspapers and travel agents. And yet, bookshops seem to pervert some of that logic.
The perverts—bookshop customers and booksellers—are not as unique and immune as they may occasionally assert, but there are undoubtedly some differences. The e-book market is plateauing much more quickly than any comparable market; and we believe subscription models—outside of some genres and specific sub-markets—will not rewrite the book-buying model. We do not believe “all you can eat” is a reader’s mindset.
As a nation we are slowly returning to the intrinsic strengths of local after 70 years of rigorously eroding it. Supermarkets, creators of our out-of-town culture, are opening in city centres and on high streets. Bookshops can be an anchor for this broader socio-economic trend.
The core needs of the books market are not changing as quickly as others. Amazon has not cracked discovery, and technology can be better harnessed by many bookshops. Great bookshops today may not look very different from great bookshops of the past. They are a perverse anachronism, “a touchstone in the neighborhood, a place with a human face and a cast of characters, a haven for people who read”. The 1950s? Rather, the current website of successful New York bookshop Three Lives.
Enders analyst Douglas McCabe is a speaker at this year’s BA Conference. For tickets, visit www.booksellers.org.uk/baconference