Never mind the book, does the bookshop have a future?

With the advent of e-readers, and an increasingly technologically literate public, do we really still need them?  Well, yes – if they want it.

A guest blog by Sara Thomas @lirazelf

There is a bookshop in the west end of Glasgow called Voltaire & Rousseau.  The shelves are stacked floor to ceiling, it smells of old paper, and there is a waist-high pile of books by the till upon which is curled a permanently snoozing cat.  I cannot see it as the type of place to offer coffee (although there’s an excellent tea house just round the corner) or do a 3 for 2 offer (although there’s a £1 section by the door).  The shop next door sells vinyl.  These are places which have found their niche.  Voltaire & Rousseau would certainly never launch their own e-reader, the event which sparked a conversation between myself and Mark on Twitter a couple of weeks ago, which led to this blog.

The Death Of The Book has been discussed endlessly, with a tiresome repetitiveness matched only by that which accompanies the assertion that Rock is Dead, or that it Wasn’t Like This In My Day.  I wonder how long it was after Defoe had finished Moll Flanders that some ragged urchin was telling him that it was all over, that the bubble had burst, that the market was forever changed and would no longer support the format.  With Borders gone, and Ottakers a distant memory, it’s the turn of the Death of the Bookshop.

As someone who worked in and studied popular music for a good few years, the eye-rollingly tiresome nature of the various debates surrounding e-books and the Death of [well, insert your chosen format here] is compounded because I’ve heard it all before.  The book industry could, I think, learn from the failure of the major labels to adapt to the changing marketplace.  For years they stood stubborn, presenting sob stories of falling revenue, piling blame for the supposed demise of the industry upon every teenager in her bedroom who didn’t want to pay £15 for an album mostly made up of filler material.  Sod that, she said, and went to the Pirate Bay instead, and spent her cash on gig tickets and merchandise.  The purchasing landscape changed, vinyl became a cult niche, the CD faded almost out of existence and the label-less musician managed fine.  The indie record shop didn’t do so well, granted.

One of the main differences, of course, is that we’ve been pirating books for years, in the form of library lending, and far from vilifying these institutions who brazenly lend material – for free! – to the general public, we declare them to be centres of cultural enrichment.  (Even the ones that have the bloody Twilight series on their shelves.)  We fight to preserve them.  When it comes to words, we seem to have understood at one point at least that reading begets reading.

One thing that the e-reader/e-book could maybe offer is a resurgence for different formats.  The short story lends itself perfectly to the hardware.  Whereas I resent paying £8 for a downloadable book, I wouldn’t at all mind paying 50p or £1 for a short story.  Word for word, the writer gets the better deal with the latter.  With Neil Gaiman recently lending his support to the tweetathon to save the short story, in reaction to Radio 4’s declining support for it, it seems that we have a renewed interest in the form.

I’d like to see a branch of Waterstones where I could wander amongst the physical books, then either download them in the shop onto an e-reader (cable? QR code?), or buy the physical copy.  There is something about (and I do hate this word, but it does get the point across) the element of discoverability which a physical bookshop offers, which is (as yet) unavailable online.  Shopping for a present for a friend recently I looked (in vain) for something about darts (it seemed like a good idea, she plays), but wandering from shelf to shelf, from floor to floor, I found myself looking at a book about film theory and then at the eventual purchase; a gloriously packaged hardback dedicated to creating the perfect vintage tea party.  “People who bought this also liked…” has never produced similar results, in my experience.  All nostalgic paper-junkie longing aside, there are genuine advantages to the real life bookshop – and I wonder if the key to the survival of that experience is the embrace of new technology in a way that the music industry didn’t manage quickly enough.

Sara Thomas is an iPhone owning paper junkie who used to work in live music venues, and has a PhD in American Popular Metal 1994-2004.  She now works as a charity fundraiser, and writes poems and short stories.  She can be found @lirazelf ranting about something or other.