It’s no secret that in the age of super-fast broadband when every store is online and you can find what you need at the click of a button, online superstores like Amazon are increasingly monopolising the booksellers’ market to the detriment of SME providers. Fewer and fewer of us are actually stepping outside and into our local bookstore to find something new to read, and if we’re not careful, there might not be a lot of places left to do so if the economy continues its downward trend.
In Nottingham (UK) where I live, we are lucky enough to have some really great bookstores, including our very own indie outlet Five Leaves, which follows in the footsteps of Nottingham’s radical bookshop tradition – the very first being opened in 1826 by Susannah Wright – by offering local readers alternative, political, weird, wonderful and often controversial texts they won’t find in mainstream outlets.
As a recipient of the Five Leaves Prize for creative writing in my Uni days, I admit I may be somewhat biased on the subject, but I fiercely believe that we need our local independent bookstores just as much as they need us: it’s important that we offer them both our patronage and our coverage to make sure that these treasure troves of creativity, diversity and inclusivity survive.
That’s why I’ve put together a list of five reasons you should be doing all you can (if you’re not already!) to support your local bookstore.
1. Supporting Local, Diverse and/or Upcoming Writers
Most of the big names in publishing prioritise selling potential and profits above all else, which is understandable, but it also means they’re less likely to take a chance with a new author or text if they’re not ‘mainstream’ enough to guarantee big sales for the company. That can only be bad for readers and writers everywhere. Literature needs diversity, but the only way to ensure that it can thrive is to give all sorts of people a voice.
That’s where independent publishers and bookstores come in. Not only do they publish and sell great texts that would be turned down by big publishers that are used to playing it safe, they are also far more likely to champion home-grown writers and help them build their fanbase at a grassroots level.
I happen to live in a city that has long since proven its literary pedigree – Nottingham has strong links to prestigious authors such as D.H. Lawrence, Lord Byron, and Allan Sillitoe, amongst others – but the truth is that every region has something unique to offer its readers, and it’s well worth visiting your local indie bookstore to find out what writers from your locality and/or culture have to say about life, love and everything in between.
2. They Might Be Stocking Your Book Someday
There are many people out there who, like me, would love to be published but know the chances of getting in with a well-known publisher like Random House or Faber & Faber are pretty darn low, no matter how good the writing.
The other side of supporting new and upcoming writers is that one day you might be the one selling the books instead of buying them, in which case you will find that small independent bookshops are quite literally a godsend (or some other sort of lifeline not granted by a religious deity, depending on your preferences).
They’re far more likely to agree to stock smaller numbers of your book and give you a chance to prove yourself, whereas the big names will have millions of writers jostling for space (most of them with agents to fight their corner) and don’t have any real incentive to give you a shot. Fact is, without independent bookstores, there are far fewer chances for writers to get the leg-up they need to make it big. If you foster hopes of seeing your name in print one day, supporting indie outlets is a wise move.
3. Finding Gems the Big Publishers May Have Missed
This might sound counter-intuitive, but you’re actually far more likely to discover your new favourite book or writer by shopping independently than you are relying on Amazon’s automated recommendations and lists of top sellers in each genre.
Why? It’s simple – small, curated bookstores are usually staffed by well-read and enthusiastic booksellers who are far more likely to want to engage with you and help you find something perfectly suited to your taste.
Yes, the big bookshops usually have titled and organised sections, but their employees cannot be expected to have knowledge of every book stocked, nor are they necessarily going to have the time or energy to offer you their expertise. Recommendation cards can only go so far, and are only usually provided for big sellers, which means you could easily walk past the perfect book without ever knowing it was there. Plus, let’s face it, talking about books with someone who can ask questions, knows the stock well and will easily be able to tailor choices to your personal preferences is a lot more rewarding and likely to succeed than defaulting to “customers who bought items in your recent history also bought… [x, y and z].”
The likelihood that you’ll find the right book without hassle increases exponentially if you visit an independent bookstore that specialises in your areas of interest and employs people who have actually read and care about the subject matter. Five Leaves, for example, have particular interests in lesbian/gay counterculture, alternative politics and regional fiction/poetry (amongst other areas), which is why their staff are well-versed in these topics and can offer friendly advice on what to read next based on likes and dislikes, favourite authors, and niche subjects.
In fact, their store has become a local hub for writers, artists, left-wingers and misfits to come together, share experiences and recommendations, and generally have a good ol’ literary-themed chinwag… which brings me to my next point rather nicely.
4. Meeting Interesting and Likeminded People
I once heard a joke that went something along the lines of “I’d be far more likely to consider a date with someone who bought me a book in a bookshop than someone who bought me a drink in a bar.” I’m missing the punchline, but you get the general idea: book choices tell you an awful lot more about a person than their ability to guess what kind of drink you like, and establishing shared interests makes for good, long-lasting relationships.
Not that you have to be on the look-out for love to benefit from the social aspect of a bookstore. Bookshops, particularly small and/or quirky independent ones, are a great place to start a conversation with someone new, because there’s a pretty good chance that the person standing next to you either shares some of your likes/dislikes or can offer you an interesting new opinion on a topic you can both approach with genuine interest.
Indie bookshops tend to attract certain subcultural groups, thus bringing together people with shared experiences and interests that extend beyond a love of all things paperback. This excerpt from the Five Leaves website is an excellent example of what I mean:
“If there was any doubt that Five Leaves is a radical bookshop it was dispelled the day after the General Election when a stream of Labour voters, Greens and assorted lefties drifted into the shop seeking comfort after the storm. We found ourselves providing an open therapy group for the forlorn (as we were ourselves). We printed up some badges – ‘Don’t Blame Me, I Voted Labour/Green/I’m an Anarchist’, as well as a set carrying the Joe Hill slogan, ‘Don’t Mourn, Organise’…”
All in all, it’s fair to say that your new best friend/boyfriend/girlfriend/ranting partner/book club invitee could be browsing the next shelf over from you!
5. Promoting the Local and National Economy
Most people are aware by now (as it’s been all over the news in recent years) that many of the big name booksellers like Amazon actually pay either little to no tax at all, despite making billions in profits from their annual sales. This hurts the local and national economy in two main ways.
Firstly, tax avoidance tactics allow Amazon and their ilk to offer books at prices which smaller retailers can’t match, meaning many smaller outlets are either having to sell exclusively online to reduce overhead costs and/or shut down completely because they cannot maintain sufficient profits. Sure, you might have an extra £3 in your pocket, but at what cost?
The small, independent booksellers are paying taxes which the government uses to pay for education, infrastructure, healthcare services, and all the other things we pretty much rely on to live our lives. So spend £10 on a new book in an indie bookstore, and you know a significant proportion of that money is going to be fed back into keeping the country running. As such, you can bask in the warm glow of knowing you’ve made the ethical choice.
Secondly, having a quirky little bookstore in your local area has benefits for the entire community. They almost always hire local people, which means an increase in jobs (always a good thing). ‘Destination’ shops like this are proven to help maintain local property prices by giving the impression it’s a rather nice place to live (and why wouldn’t it be, with books on the doorstep?). They hold regular events such as poetry readings, book clubs, discussion groups, and even the occasional afternoon tea to promote local writers and engage more fully with the people who buy, read and have things to say about the books being sold. All this means they are far better placed to cater to local interests and cultures than your big-brand bookstore.
Plus, as places to read are becoming fewer and farther between as libraries are forced to close, not everyone wants to spend £4 on a sticky-swishy-latte-chino in Starbucks and waste time finding a good seat only to have some idiot with a mobile phone stuck to his face sit down somewhere close by and ruin the ambience. Many indie bookstores actively encourage in-store reading and will even provide comfy seating fit for purpose.
In short: indie bookshops can actually make your city, and your country, a better place to be.
(Image: Five Leaves Books)