To me, it seemed like the worst of times. A big, bright, multinational bookstore had opened up directly across the road from my favourite independent bookseller. Book lovers were miffed. How could one little bookshop compete with the might of a huge chain? Would it survive the competition?
I was attending university around the corner at the time and I had there been long enough to have lost my heart to the local bookshop.
I sized up the new one suspiciously, entering to find out what we were up against. Yep, there were the noisy tills. The impersonal, widely-spaced shelves.
But then I spotted something else. It was a great deal: three books for the price of two. Tempting. And there were so many books to choose from, and all of those comfy, modern couches on which to sit. It was open for breakfast and didn’t close until long after dinner, and there was a coffee shop. I felt a tug at my fickle heart before choosing three books and heading to the ringing tills.
And so it became my after-dinner habit to stroll between both shops, sometimes buying at one, sometimes at the other. It was some kind of literary utopia, with a bookshop to serve my every whim; for fossicking around in search of a forgotten treasure, talking to the friendly and knowledgeable staff, or for effortlessly finding the latest paperback propped up on a spacious shelf.
To everyone’s surprise, it was the big multi-national that eventually finally failed, but I did not feel the triumph that I had originally hoped for. Instead, I felt a sense of loss.
This week, when the managing director of UK book chain, Waterstones, James Daunt, criticised the ‘crushing consistency’ of chain bookshops, I was reminded of that Borders store in Carlton. The criticism came as Waterstones moved to introduce unbranded shops in small towns in the UK, in an attempt to remind booksellers (and presumably, buyers), of their autonomy. Perhaps it is hoped they can recreate the charm of the independents.
But, I wonder whether they might be mixing up their purposes, for, as much as I love an independent book shop, with its cosy reading nooks and dusty, bookish smell, I like to think there is also room for the chains, for the bright lights, the high turnover, the anonymous browsing and the cheap new releases. Call me a heathen, but I don’t even mind an occasional visit to Big W’s books aisle.
Of course, these corporate giants are a world apart from the quaint bookshops that are so fetishised by book lovers. Two novels I have read recently highlight the attraction and romance of the independent book shop: The Storied Life of Mr Fikry and The Little Paris Bookshop.
The Little Paris Bookshop is housed on a dusty vessel anchored on the banks of the Seine, on which the protagonist eventually floats away to make peace with his past. It is a reader’s dream – of floating through the villages of France, surrounded by books.
Similarly, Mr Fikry’s book shop is the hub of a small, coastal community. It is in the pokey book shop that parties are held, children fossick for their favourite books and passions are ignited.
In my teens, I also remember reading 84, Charing Cross Road, a book so imbued with nostalgia that the dust practically puffs up from the pages as they are turned. When I eventually travelled to London, I visited the place where the shop had stood, and the shopfront remained. It was exactly as I had pictured it would be, surrounded by countless other bookshops, selling so many literary treasures.
In these novels, the bookshop represents something entirely different to a chain – they might be related, but they are estranged. However, I don’t think we have to choose between the two. For me, although I adore a unique, characterful bookshop, spending time in any place where I can be surrounded by books is a joy. Especially when there are also couches and coffees as well.
When John Updike said, “Bookstores are lonely forts, spilling light onto the sidewalk. They civilize their neighborhoods.”, rather than imagining the cosy, faded light of an independent, I like to think of the fluorescent glare of a book superstore, welcoming lonely wanderers late into the night.
Of course, one of the biggest challenge to bookshops come not from their bricks and mortar competition, but from the spectre of online retailers. However, as much as I appreciate the convenience and cost of online bookshops, it would be a terrible shame to lose the opportunity to visit physical bookstores, whatever form they might take.
So, good luck, Waterstones. Do whatever it takes to stay on the high streets of the UK. Just know that I would visit you, even if you stayed just the way you are. And I will continue to mourn the best of times, when two bookshops lit up the footpaths on opposite sides of Lygon Street.