I've been a bit quiet here, mostly because when I've not been at work or asleep I've been preparing book reviews for other places. I'm sure there used to be more hours in the day...
Meanwhile it's been a week with a couple of interesting stories about bookshops in the news, both of which have got me thinking. There's Susan Hill's odd spat with The Book Hive in Norwich (her Spectator article is Here, a Guardian article about it Here, and the bookshops response is Here). If you've missed this, it seems like Susan Hill pulled out of a bookshop event, her PR people saying it was for undisclosed personal reasons, meanwhile she wrote an article about it saying her decision was based on what she perceived as censorship, and anti Trump politics, on the part of the bookshop (they've been handing out copies of 1984 and The Handmaids Tale which had been provided by a local book group). In turn The Book Hive came forward to basically say that's us, and what the hell?
I find it interesting not so much for Hill's accusations, though I do think they're odd, but for her idea of what a bookshop, and especially an independent bookshops should be. In this case, "To my mind, a bookshop is like a library — the only difference is that you buy the books, you don’t borrow them. But both have a duty to provide books (space and budgets allowing) reflecting a wide range — as wide as possible — of interests, reading tastes, subjects and points of view. Walk into one of either and there are the thoughts and feelings, beliefs and dreams and creations and discoveries of many men and women, and that is part of their never-ending excitement."
Assuming she actually means that, you have to ask why she thinks a bookshop should be like a library. Bookshops exist to sell books, if they don't sell enough books they won't exist for very long, but what do they really have a duty to provide? If it's anything at all I'd be inclined to say it's enthusiasm for the stock they choose to sell, and that's about it.
The other story floating around concerns Waterstones and their 'secret' shops; three branches that have been opened in picturesque small towns that look and behave like independents (more Here.) I haven't visited one any of them, though if I get the chance I will. The one in Southwold is called Southwold books, there is a sign in the window that indicates they are part of the Waterstones chain, but it's not clear to me if they run the same offers or if it works rather more like Hatchards with different offers and no loyalty card cross over (I do love my Waterstones loyalty card, which has been extremely effective in keeping me loyal).
Essentially this is another storm in a tea cup. Waterstones staff may view this differently (retail jobs are hard work and not generally as well paid as they probably should be) but I'm not aware of them being a big corporate monster. Talk of them having an unfair advantage when it gives to the imminent rise in business rates sounds like nonsense to me as well. Yes, they might have the money behind them to pay the higher bills, but my experience of bigger companies is that they can afford to, and will, walk away if the profit margin isn't there. Independent's tread a finer line and don't always have the luxury of doing that. But again it does raise the question of what a bookshop, and a high street, should look like.
If Waterstones are finding that small shops in small towns are working for them that's interesting. I'm assuming that these 3 branches are moving even further away from discounting than the branded stores are, and I think that's good news too. We're lucky in this country that books are relatively cheap, but they also represent a lot of work by a number of people all of who need to make a living, deep discounting doesn't really do anybody any favours, not even the customer if it means that all we get are the sure bets that can be relied on to shift a massive number of units at rock bottom price.
My local Waterstones is quite small, it's something that often frustrates me when I want to browse - Nottingham is the closest really big branch - so this has made me wonder how I'd feel about it if it wasn't branded. The answer is probably more positive, rather than thinking wistfully of what other branches have I'd probably be more focused on the really excellent staff and the very good service they provide. It's something to remember next time I go in.