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End of story for indie bookshops?

Online 'bullies' blamed as Mersey sellers go under. What next, asks Laura Brown

Published on April 13th 2011.

End of story for indie bookshops?

ABOUT 20 minutes in to the 1998 film You've Got Mail, Meg Ryan is trying to reassure her colleagues that their bookshop will survive once Tom Hank's mega-chain Fox Books opens over the road.

“If they don't have it, we will - and vice versa.”

'People will often come in here to browse titles and then go home and order it cheaper online' - Margaret Gillett, Linghams

In a matter of weeks she's locking up the shop for the last time, musing “it will probably become something really depressing, like a Baby Gap.”

Last week, the shop at FACT, a haven for film titles, obscure art texts and digital art guidebooks closed its doors. The charity simply couldn't afford to subsidise it any more.

Last month Linghams was forced to close its West Kirby shop as its parent company went into liquidation. The manager that saved the Heswall store didn't have the money to buy both.

This spring, RIBA's bookshop on Wood Street will go when the milkandsugar gallery shuts down. In September, Pritchards in Formby will close it doors leaving just the Crosby shop.

More empty stores on the high street. More people losing their jobs.

Yes, we'll sigh. Yes, we'll be sad. But will we lose anything? Are they not simply a hangover of a pre-internet age? Is it not easier and cheaper to order direct from Amazon or Abebooks or download straight to your Kindle or iPod?

Mandy Vere one of the co-op of workers at Bold Street's News from Nowhere is watching a girl who's about three, book in one hand, satsuma in the other, climb onto a comfy chair to read as she waits for her mum to pick a book.

“I hope when she becomes a teenager and other things like boys get in the way that she remembers this. That she can pick up a book and disappear into this world of stories and imagination”.

It is, as Mandy describes it, a “treasure trove of nooks ad crannies” in the radical bookshop that has been saved from numerous “crises” by a local community that doesn't want it to close.

They're currently asking for funds to pay for a new fire system for the building. News from Nowhere is always more likely to pick books “from the second page of the list the publishers bring to us”.

Curated as keenly as any gallery, while they tend to stock books on virtually every subject under the sun, they choose books that challenge the status quo. Anything from a history of working class labour to radical graffiti artists, books for teachers on bullying, anti-racism, worker's rights for teenagers, the slave trade or sex and relationships. A book of international folk tales is wedged next to Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy.

News from Nowhere stock texts on the reading lists from both of the city's universities. Students are openly amazed when they walk in off the street.

“They don't think that bookshops like this still exist. Many have never been in one before and are used to Borders or Waterstones where they can buy a coffee and their 3 for 2s”.

The challenges for independent bookshops are well known. The ending of retail price maintenance in 1997 ended their ability to stock bestsellers because they couldn't compete with the discounts offered by supermarkets and big chains. Battered and bruised bookshops then had to face the onslaught on internet stores like Amazon which discounted even further.

“The bullying tactics of the high street pale in comparison to those used by online traders,” says Mandy.

Books became so cheap that buyers turned their nose up at paying £7.99 or £10 for a paperback. A price allowing the publisher, the author as well as the

seller to get a decent pay-cheque from the book was simply no longer viable. But what publisher will say no to one of the biggest brands revolutionising how people buy books?

The only avenue for independent bookshops was either to specialise or diversify. Academic books became more expensive. They included stationary and toys which offer a good mark up.

As an example, perhaps inspired by the revolutionary fervour, take the example of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, one of the most popular texts perennially at News from Nowhere. In paperback in addition to various audiobook options News from Nowhere, Linghams, Pritchards all sell it for £9.99. Amazon, you can buy it new for £6.99 or used from £1.67 with a £2.80 delivery fee. At Waterstones (who have their own problems at the moment) it's currently on offer at £7.99. You save £2!

Margaret Gillett has worked for Linghams for 18 years. “People will often come in here to browse titles and then go home and order it cheaper online.”

Well so what? Isn't that what commerce is all about adapting and changing? Survival of the fittest?

Each independent bookshop on Merseyside now has a website where you can browse and order texts. Linghams in particular can get a book in within 24 hours, much quicker than the larger stores. They're even venturing onto Twitter in the hope of capturing the elusive younger customer.

But for Mandy it's all about being able to touch and hold the books.

“Online it's not the same as coming into a bookshop, coming across things, seeing a book by an author you like that you haven't read before, getting angry about titles. It's not suggesting titles that come up based on your sales habit and what pages you've clicked on on the site.”

Similarly, the experience that's behind the counter makes a big difference. The team at News from Nowhere have “about 150 years experience between us”. At Linghams each member of staff has a different specialism be it philosophy, sci-fi or horror. The manager of the shop at FACT was a artist and curator in his own right, his assistant a photographer. At milkandsugar where better than staff from RIBA to advise you on an architecture book?

“It is a profession, and the experience is a benefit to every customer” says Mandy. No sullen Saturday sales assistants earning beer money. No member of staff who is just as likely to be o the veg counter or stocking the fridge as they layout the latest bestseller from “Jordan”.

Each store has a firm identity. At Linghams they host regular poetry nights and a book club as well as hosting signings and stocking texts from local authors who would never get the same prominence in a large chain. The same at Pritchards. In Formby, earlier this year, they even co-hosted an evening with Andy McNabb.

Use it or lose it, it says on Pritchards homepage. At Linghams they're planning a refurbishment and expanding different sections including increasing the range and number of religious books.

At News from Nowhere the little girl puts down the book and follows her mum to the till. Mandy is pensive, “Order your books from Amazon, go for the cheaper deals but don't be surprised if the next time you want to browse, your local bookshop it just isn't there any more”.

Bookshop use-it-or-lose-it:

Pritchards Crosby - Click hereLinghams bookshop - Click hereNews from Nowhere bookshop - Click here

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19 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

BookwormApril 13th 2011.

It is shocking. I heard the man in Pritchards, Crosby, last week saying that people come into the shop and browse titles for ages and then walk out audibly muttering that they will buy it cheaper from Amazon. Shame on you people. Admittedly, he did say he felt like twatting them.

Soon there will be no bookshops and the dumbing down of our feral society will be complete. Katie Price autobiography from de Asda, anyone?

sporusApril 14th 2011.

as onetime book dealer I have great sympathy with struggling indie bookshops. but I am also a Kindle user. love it. love being able to raid Gutenberg and other sites for free pickings from the canon - pre-20C novels, science, philosophy etc. thats the way it goes. paper-based books are just habit and tradition.no doubt the union of papyrus makers, the scroll rod carvers and the association of vellum preparers decried the new technologies which displaced them. but they succumbed to change in the end. thats life: onwards and upwards

WagApril 14th 2011.

oh come on, don't let the media's latest flirtation with a new electronic device fool you. This is not like the death of vinyl which only existed for a few decades anyway, it is much more sober prospect. You feel a book, you smell a book, it watches you from a shelf when you have finished reading it. other people pick it up and breathe new life into its pages and it does the same into all of their senses.
You don't need to be rich or technically savvy to own one and learn from one and luxuriate in one. You can be anyone.

Paper based books are much more than a habit and a tradition, they are part of what makes us human.

Big GApril 14th 2011.

I love Pritchards , if I want to buy a book I like to go there , I know them and they know me . They are a great book shop , they have Horrid Henry there and lots of great authors signing books . It,s really sad that indi book shops are disappearing !!!!!!!

The SauntererApril 14th 2011.

In Liverpool the independent bookshops had to take up secondhand book sales seriously after the abolition of the net book agreement in the 1980s, but then Liverpool City Council effectively closed down 'Out of Print', 'Atticus', 'North West Books' etc. and kicked them out of their rented premises in the 1990s in the name of what the Council called "regeneration" - so we could have more bars and junk food instead.

ADApril 14th 2011.

The most important thing about a book is the words it contains. It doesnt matter whether books are bought online or downloaded as long as people are still reading.

Dom KnigiApril 14th 2011.

OK AD, so you like to drive nails into the coffin of the local economy and you'll not miss the socialising and learning experience of browsing in a proper bookshop?
The serendipitous find that thrills and can transform lives has obviously never happened to you.
I suppose you think bookshops are for selling overpriced fashion coffee?

Mr. J. G. ReederApril 14th 2011.

Selling coffee attracts the wrong sort into bookshops and smell is often awful. I remember when Tesco in Rose Lane tried to lure in shoppers with the smell of burning chicken fat. It was disgusting and it cured me of shopping there.

I prefer bookshops to smell of books. And pipe tobacco.

AnonymousApril 14th 2011.

I am reading Ian McEwan's latest book Solar. despite spending most of my time online I had not heard of it until I was in Pritchards last week. It is a great book. But the point is, most of the books I have ever bought I have happened upon by chance in this way. I love bookshops and cannot imagine how much poorer our town centres would be if we did not back or indie retailers. Sometimes I just go in and buy a book to keep them going.

oliver twistApril 15th 2011.

The internet has ruined evreything for the retailer and let's face it we are all guilty of buying online.In this age of austerity every nickel and dime counts so if you can buy it cheaper why not buy on line?I must say though i do prefer the charity shops for books,now and again you can find a little gem.C'est le vie.

FaginApril 15th 2011.

"Nckel and dime"? If you ever went into a shop my boy you would find that such funny foreign money is not legal tender in this country.

Slightly FoxedApril 15th 2011.

The decline of the bookshop mirrors the decline of this city. Before Waterstones came along in the 1980s we had Philip, Son & Nephew on Whitechapel, Wilson´s on Renshaw Street and Castle Street, Parry Books (Lord Street), Atticus (Hardman Street), Waterston´s and Progressive Books (both on Berry Street) and many other specialist shops Even Lewis´s department store had a large and well-stocked book department.

All gone now of course. And this is supposed to be a three-university city with over 60,000 students...

Quite a bit more FoxedApril 15th 2011.

The lovely Waterstone's building on the corner of Concert Street was turned into a huge bar for slobbering meatheads.

The short-lived Sheratt & Hughes bookshop in Waterloo Place became a Burger King.

And we still won European Capital of Culture in 2008!

'How?' I ask myself.

ADApril 15th 2011.

I love bookshops and I dont buy my books online, I'm just saying that the buying experience is nothing like as important as the actual reading of the book.

If we're worried about books in our society then its much more important to care about whether people, children particulaly, are still reading.

HeironymousApril 15th 2011.

In terms of content, agreed it matters not one jot whether we read a paper book or a kindle download. But the physical nature of a book makes it special, more personal, something you can become attached to, something that becomes a friend and is worthy as a gift to a friend.

But the real issue is not economic or technological 'progress', it is monopolisation by big suppliers. They can discount massively, as loss leaders, squeezing author royalties as well as squeezing independent bookshops out of business. Yes, the buyer gets a cheaper deal, for now. But on what range of books in the future? What happens when it is no longer possible to make a living as a writer? What happens when all the small publishers have been gobbled up by big outfits producing blockbusters (another Wayne Rooney memoir anyone?) and nothing else?
Amazon makes its own decisions what they sell: when they say something is unavailable, it doesn't mean it is out of print, it means Amazon can't be arsed to find it.
Book buyers may find they are bigger losers in the long run than they anticipate.

TourmanApril 15th 2011.

How many of us wait a while, then get our books from Oxfam or one of the many charity shops that sell cheap books.

WagApril 15th 2011.

Er, not me. It has never occurred to me in fact!

The Quality of MerseyApril 15th 2011.

What turns up in charity shops tends to be twenty identical copies of the last Dan Brown tripe.

Like jumble sales, charity shops are only worthwhile if you are prepared to leave empty-handed 19 times out of 20, unless you just want a houseful of rubbish.

Slightly FoxedApril 17th 2011.

Small independent bookshops are in almost daily contact with their wholesalers so they they can obtain the book you want very quickly.
Big chains can take weeks if not months for it to be included in their next lorryload of bestsellers and people might think that all bookshops offer such a poor service.

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