Saturday, 9 June 2012

The Big London Bookshop Tour

This week, I jumped into the passenger seat of a Fiat 500 and let the brilliant Lauren Ace from Pan Macmillan drive me ALL OVER LONDON visiting book stores.  In two days, we did a lightning tour of 12 book shops, starting with the Aladdin’s Cave which is Newham Bookshop in East London and ending at Blackwells on Charing Cross Road.  During the whole trip, it howled with wind and absolutely bucketed down with rain but ace Lauren Ace just kept on driving and didn’t even seem the slightest bit rattled by my complete inability to use an i-phone – let alone navigate our way with a Google map.  I signed a shedload of books and we gave out pink cakes and biscuits, Queen of Teen bookmarks and samplers of What’s Up With Jody Barton?  I also got to visit some of the loveliest little bookshops in London – and some lovely big ones - and I met loads of amazing people who don’t just work behind the counter of a bookshop but who have made a lifestyle decision to keep books and bookshops alive and who are committed to providing their communities with a base for accessing the written word.

We’ve heard a lot about the closure of libraries recently.  This is a terrible thing.  But we mustn’t forget that – in the age of the cheap online retailer and illegal free download - bookshops are fighting their own battles.  I can totally understand the appeal of the e-reader but, as someone who associates electronic screens with work – nothing will ever replace the printed word for me.  I remain hopeful for the future of my beloved book and I believe that – so long as people remain prepared to pay for the written word - there is room for both formats.  In my mind, they serve a different purpose.  An e-reader is a file - good for convenience and reading on the move, whereas a book is a slightly bulkier but still portable product which is also, crucially, the physical form of something we love.  Do I want to own To Kill A Mockingbird or Catcher in The Rye or Wuthering Heights as a virtual concept which will disappear the second my charge runs out? – No.  There are some books which I need on my shelves.  They are the summation of who I am.  Perhaps I am a bit behind the times but reducing my life and loves to digital files seems somewhat soulless and unexciting.

I am obviously not alone.  Because against the odds, the bookshop soldiers on.  Newham Bookshop offers the people of Newham a connection with their community.  Apparently, The Sugar Girls, chronicling the lives of those who worked at the nearby Tate and Lyle sugar factory, is currently their best-selling title. Village Books, Dulwich provides teenagers from local schools with an entire floor of their own in which to lose themselves in a good book.  In The Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green, I was so seduced by titles I’d never seen before that my credit card took a bashing.  These are just a few of the magical places I visited.  And, as somebody who holds a Waterstones loyalty card, I cannot deny that the chain stores have their place too.  Ok, they may not offer the same idiosyncratic experience and are more uniform in appearance and content but they still provide the reader with a tangible and human service.  Sarah in Watford Waterstones was so clearly and visibly bubbling over with her love of books that I actually wanted to hug her. I couldn’t though.  She would have thought I was weird.  And anyway, she was too busy chatting to customers and advising them on what to buy.

Before I began my bookshop tour, I naively and egotistically thought it was going to be all about me.  A bit of promotion here.  A few signed books there.  Actually, I got much more out of the experience than that.  I took away an enormous amount of respect for the people who work in those bookshops.  I’ve always respected these people anyway but now I realise they are actually heroic.  No doubt, they could gain more financially by selling something boring like stocks and shares or advertising space.  But instead they choose to work in bookshops and provide us all with the opportunity to gain information on any subject in existence.  Yes, there is the argument that we can get all this for free on the internet too.  But remember, as amazing as it is - as democratic and levelling as it is - the internet also has no quality control.  Anyone can post up anything.  Surrounding all the good stuff is a minefield of misinformation and reactionary opinions.  Facts are not necessarily checked.  Fiction is not necessarily worked over and over and over...

So what I’m saying is this:  If we want to continue reading words of a certain quality we must continue to pay for them.  These are tough times for anything which can be reduced to a digital file.  The legal download will – just about – keep writers and publishers in business.  But the beautiful, tactile and actual book will keep booksellers and bookshops in business too.

 Please buy a book from a bookshop when you can.

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