Monday, September 28, 2009

Trying to Spend

  Tagging along with a teaching friend who was ostensibly looking for stationary a good chunk of Sunday afternoon was spent in our local branch of B*****s. After fortifying cups of coffee and associated gossip I hit the shelves in search of something excitingly shiny and new. A job interview on Saturday has made me optimistic about future budgeting, regardless of outcome the occasion seemed worth celebrating and I thought a book would be nice...

  Specifically I was looking for Barbara Pym’s ‘Some Tame Gazelle’, Muriel Spark’s ‘The Comforters’ or Frank Baker’s ‘Miss Hargreaves’, indeed almost any of the Bloomsbury Group range would have done. All new books, none present. Then I looked for ‘Tarka the Otter’, recently reissued by penguin modern classics, avoided in the past because I assumed the otter died, but apparently the ending is ambiguous enough to be hopeful - so it’s on my list, but was not in stock.

  Whilst nobody was looking I browsed along paranormal romance trying to remember when this became a genre that deserved its own section. I found myself in front of a book rejoicing in the title ‘Mr Darcy, Vampyre’ and decided I was very much in the wrong place. In the end I bought nothing, the whole experience was deeply disconcerting – if a major retailer fails to take the money I want to spend its doing something badly wrong.

  Fortunately I have plenty to read at home, I spent the evening very happily with ‘The Talisman Ring’ (for the umpteenth time) but I find it very hard to understand why nothing I wanted was available. Generally when I come away from a bookshop empty handed it’s because I want something very specific and possibly obscure, or have no clear idea of what I’m after, but not when I have a longish list of recently published titles from major houses.

  This experience illustrates everything that seems wrong to me about bookselling today. Mountains of unsold, heavily discounted Dan Brown and Jamie Oliver demonstrate just how much faith is placed in a few big names to turn a profit, but can they do it? It’s impossible to avoid either author at the moment; they’re in every supermarket never mind bookshop and cheap with it. By Thursday when the Christmas books come out finding a tempting paperback beyond the massed legions of celebrity biography will become even more of a challenge, but why?

  Of course if the customer wants these titles, and sometimes they do, they should be stocked, but surely not to the exclusion of so many other things. Deep discounting isn’t helping profit margin, and lack of choice is driving people like me who would rather support the high street to Amazon. Price is a factor but so is choice, I miss the days when I could walk around almost any bookshop and find something that excited me, now I only rarely find that level of variety and imagination, generally in independent and second hand stores. The frustrating thing is that the books I want to read are being published, and I know I’m not alone in my enthusiasm, so why are we being ignored by so many retailers?


  1. It is so difficult for small bookshops. They can't compete with the supermarkets and bigger booksellers on the high-volume fast-turnover books, and there is such a range of slightly-off mainstream books. What to stock?!

    Here in small town Cornwall with none of the chains our two independent booksellers veer towards local books which are safe sellers, but they are very good at identifying and quickly ordering things they don't have on the shelves. Though that doesn't really work on a day-trip!

    So I buy little on the high street, but I do support the second-hand bookshops and when I buy online it's direct from smaller presses or sellers wherever possible.

    Not perfect, but it's the best I can do to support the book trade!

  2. I know, I know. I always want to buy from the shops to support them but they rarely have what I want. They have to stock what the masses want, and sadly those of us with more eclectic taste are too much of a minority to take a gamble on. I agree with you, I find it so frustrating browsing the shelves of bookshops and finding nothing that I want. That's why I head straight to the second hand ones as they always have something interesting, and I prefer old books anyway.

  3. As much as I love the ease and discounts of Amazon, I have much the same reaction when going into any of the big chain bookstores. It's just sad to be surrounded by so many books, often so beautifully packaged and presented, but of such bland content that I have no desire to even pick them up let alone take them home. And it's more than a little depressing to see books like "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" and the new "Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters" or whatever it's called at the front of the store, but the actual Austen novels are hidden in the tiny classics section. I seem to have most of my luck at the one local independent bookstore (which is fortunately quite large) and at the many smaller used bookstores. I do wish we had something like the charity store books I keep reading about - it's a wonderful idea.

    I'm sorry you didn't find anything, particularly when you had such a lovely reason for celebrating. I hope you can locate a copy of "Some Tame Gazelle" - it's one of my favorite Pym novels. And best of luck with the potential job.

  4. It's so frustrating when you really want a book, and you want it NOW rather than when Amazon deliver not to be able to find it in a bookshop. It so often happens with me, with slightly offbeat new releases. So I end up resorting to Amazon, and I suppose the pleasures ofgetting post somehow make up for a bit of not being able to pick it off the shelves.

    Good luck with the job!

  5. How annoying! I'm checking every bookshop I go into for Miss Hargreaves now, just to see - in Oxford she's in Blackwells, but not Borders or Waterstones - but she was in a tiny, lovely independent bookshop in the Lake District. Small bookshops which choose their stock really well are so refreshing after the chain bookshops in Oxford.