Culture House Daily

I hope and pray that bookshops will survive – somehow

10 April 2014

When writing a novel, there comes a time, in the process of gestation and planning, when other books are required. It is almost as though, Middlemarch-like, your little attempt at writing cannot be separated from what others have written. The world is a great web. Books speak to books. They cry out, call, whisper. I find it very strange. When writing a novel, when so much is held in your heart and your head, certain books quietly announce themselves. Usually, I have found, that happens in bookshops – those rapidly-diminishing repositories of paper and card and ink.

It is not the same online, on the electronic web. Yes, I know that Penguin Random House has just publicised plans to build platforms that will enable readers to share their thoughts on good books. And I know that Amazon is like a large, single-breasted lover, always on call, forever willing to suckle my need for books. She – and here I do the intrusive, algorithmic computing software a personifying favour – faithfully makes recommendations based on previous purchases and even on simple searches. And with a quick motion, we click, she and I. And a few hours/days later, the offspring of our union appears in neat cardboard nappies. Books simply drop through the door, delivered by the stork it would seem.

But it is not the same as standing in a bookshop. Many people have written about that sense of tingling serendipity. I have experienced it many times.

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Like when I wrote my first novel. There I was in Heffers bookshop, Cambridge, drifting inevitably downstairs, to where they kept their Africa section. There they were: amid all the others, two books that would profoundly influence my writing of Held Up, a literary novel about the new South Africa. Jodie Bieber’s photo-essay collection transported me instantly from the street just down from St John’s College and a short distance from the King’s Parade to the interior of shacks in Soweto.

I was staring at precisely what I had struggled to imagine. In my hands I held the gas bottle and the car battery used to power cookers and radios; I could reach out and touch the corrugated walls and compelling details of vivid, ramshackle lives. There was a map. I was able to locate my protagonist precisely in a place I had tried previously to hover above on Google Earth. It took a book. A book in a bookshop in Cambridge plunged me more completely into my homeland of South Africa than I ever would have thought possible. And there was R.W. Johnson’s magisterial South Africa’s Brave New World: The Beloved Country Post-Apartheid. My plot fell into place. The socio-historical and political complexities of the narrative I was trying to tell were thrown into relief. Thanks to those books, I was brushing past fur coats into Narnia – or, in this case, Soweto. I had found South Africa on the wooden shelves of a well-stocked shop.

The same serendipity struck when I was actively searching for an epigraph to illuminate my second novel, The Crack. Heffers again. This time upstairs. Susan Sontag winked at me and there was her Illness as Metaphor. Ditto for Emily Dickinson. I already had a few well-thumbed collections of her poetry, but it was the seemingly stray selection of another anthology that offered up the perfect poem, the one that declared ‘To fill a Gap/ Insert the Thing that caused it – ‘. It was the stylistic realisation of all that I was trying to achieve as I brought to life the febrile, delicate character and fractured perceptions of Janet Snyman, wife of an Afrikaans police interrogator in The Crack.

And it has happened again as I am busy with another book. The exact text I needed on servants in 1930s Britain as well as a multi-faceted view of English life between the world wars (in neat chapters, perfect for a non-historian like me). And as I was heading out of the coffee shop of my local book store that fortuitous day, I happened to see a display featuring books on gardens and gardening. And, although I had not anticipated needing anything on English country gardens just yet, here was a book that offered a wealth of pictures, as well as some commentary entirely germane to my own purpose. Yes, here were handy quotations linking gardening to narrative technique: the essence of my metafictional aspirations. And all that despite having scoured the internet, succumbing to the charms of my passionate, energetic Amazon. Despite all the money I have spent online, the real luminaries have been more subtle and surprising, seemingly brought to me by the physical proximity of ‘real’ books, in ‘real’ bookshops.

Will I dump my rather clingy Amazonian lover sometime soon? No, of course not. Will I hope and pray that bookshops continue to survive, somehow? You bet I will. My life and my writing would be much, much poorer without a good bookshop somewhere near me.

Christopher Radmann is the author of The Crack, which is published by Oneworld Publications on 4 May (Hardback, £14.99)

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  • Aussie Busman

    I operate a secondhand bookshop in Australia. Like everywhere else we have lost hundreds of these little sole (soul) traders. There were 25 similar shops in our touristy area now just 6 and most are struggling. High rents, wages and on costs and of course on line sellers, backyarders, markets, eBay and other sellers have made it hard to survive, The secret I think is to buy cheap and sell cheap..Not interested in new books, kindles and eReaders and high publishing, printing costs have killed the new book trade and it seems new books get remaindered the day they are released which is crazy. Keep us alive buy books and buy lots of them…Use it or lose it.

  • ADW

    Wishful thinking sadly. A few second hand bookshops might survive (reduced thanks to eBay) but that’s about it.

  • gerontius

    I’d have to visit Cambridge these days if I want a real bookshop and Cambridge is a place I avoid whenever I can. The last proper bookshop in my local towns of St Ives and St Neots closed some years ago when the owner died.
    Thought of relocating to Carlisle because it has a glorious second hand book and record shop – a dazzling sweetshop for grown-ups. My wife was sympathetic, but not that sympathetic.
    Yep- real bookshops are disappearing alright.
    I’ve taken to using Abebooks, which describes itself as an online marketplace for, mostly, secondhand booksellers, so I hope I’m helping keep some alive. You can still do a sort of serendipity thing by randomly searching with odd words and names – not quite the real thing but has its moments.

    • transponder

      Alibris is good. But in general I rely on Amazon. You can find almost anything there, and the customer service is second to none.

      • gerontius

        Good morning!
        I’ll give Alibris a try. I think I might have heard of it, but I’m not certain.
        Been away for a few days – no internet and no phone signal – digital peace. One night I dreamt that my phone had turned into a candy bar and so I ate it, only to learn, to my embarrassment, that it wasn’t my candy bar at all but someone else’s. Don’t we just puzzle ourselves on occasions.

        • transponder

          Giggle. That’s the first and only amusing tale of a dream I’ve ever heard. If your phone had turned into a frankfurter, would you have eaten it? Imagine the embarrassment of eating someone else’s frank!

    • Kitty MLB

      Ah, you remind me of my student days. Hovering around within the old
      book shops of Cambridge. In one I met Hamish, whom introduced me to the
      Highlands.. somewhat different to the flatness of Cambridgeshire.
      I am familiar with Norfolk and Norwich has excellent book shops- that
      are out of the way.

  • Owen_Morgan

    The trouble with bookshops is that they go out of business. It’s easy to say that they wouldn’t, if only we all bought more books, but that’s really nothing like the whole story. For every small-scale bookseller with startlingly well-packed shelves in his (or, just as often, her) premises, there is another one who stocks virtually no books at all. Books can be ordered, but why order a book from a self-described “bookshop”, which has no actual books, rather than from Amazon (or Tesco, for that matter)?

    The other problem with the bookshop business is that so much of it is operated by chains, potentially very fragile ones: Waterstones, Blackwells and Foyles (all of them without that pesky apostrophe). The town nearest to where I live used to have that kind of bookshop with a limited stock, but a willingness to order. The Scottish chain Thin opened a shop which managed to be reasonably stocked, while disastrously looking rather empty. I suppose that it contributed to the over-expansion which helped to kill off Thin.

    Then Waterstones arrived and the one remaining bookshop moved swiftly to much more splendid surroundings, providing genuine rivalry. The rival, however, was taken over and the replacement rival was then taken over, in its turn, by Waterstones. We had had two competing bookshops, but were inevitably left with only one bookshop in the town. Given the financial performance of Waterstones, we may well be left with none. I have actually devoted quite a lot to keeping all of these enterprises in business and have the groaning floorboards to prove it.

    The former flagship of Thin, the one beside Edinburgh University, is now Blackwells. It’s still an excellent bookshop. Heffer’s, the Cambridge bookshop praised in this article, is Blackwells, too. George’s bookshop, in Bristol, also now Blackwells, used to occupy about six premises. Now, it’s down to one: a small one. The books are still stacked high (they have to be, really, don’t they?), but it’s a spectacular retreat from the glory days. Foyles today is obviously a vast improvement from the years of the barking-mad Christina Foyle (even those hoardings on Charing Cross Road, just down from the Foyles flagship, don’t dispute that she was absolutely bonkers), but the fact is that, at the best, we could soon be left with the idea of a bookshop as something that exists in London, Edinburgh, Oxford and Cambridge and, possibly, Ullapool.

    At some subsequent point, when all the remaining high street bookshop chains (with or without books on the premises) find their results heading relentlessly southwards, we may find that there are no physical bookshops left. If, in the interim, we have have also driven out the likes of Amazon, I don’t know where people will hope to get books from, short of writing their own. Considering how many I have, I should probably start planning a bookshop.

  • P.chi ki wan

    And libraries

  • Kitty MLB

    I really hope you endeavour to ‘dump’ your Amazonian lover at some point.
    she is fine through a quick trip around the hardware section and every other section! not that you actually need to go out to find what you need.
    She is new, exiting, cheap and the grass is always greener.. And there is also the excitement of opening a package .
    Yet there is something quite special and unique about rambling around a bookshop
    I know the one you mention in Cambridge, I also know excellent book shops
    in Bury St Edmonds- less of a problem with students, and tourists- bookshops
    in Bath and Stratford Upon Avon contain some quite eccentric people.
    Its that musky smell in bookshops, the smell of history ( you don’t get that with Amazon) There is something quintessentially English about our historical market
    towns and that little hidden book shop that has been their for decades, and
    obviously for philistines there are ‘ modern’ bookshops- but then order from Amazon!

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