April 28, 2018
An Indie Bookstore Day message from Shaun Bythell, author of The Diary of a Bookseller
by Shaun Bythell
March, as you will undoubtedly be aware, is National Welding Month. The 13th of March is Blame Someone Else Day; the 17th is Blah Blah Blah Day, and the 24th is Pig in a Blanket Day. While some of these designated days are clearly farcical, nestled among them are some which are genuinely designed to raise awareness of serious issues, and one of these is Independent Bookstore Day — the last Saturday in April every year, which this year falls upon the 28th of the month. This is a day on which bookstores try to make their customers feel a bit special by offering discounts, wine, music — whatever they fancy. And while it might give the illusion of being celebratory, its true purpose is really to remind people that independent bookshops exist, and to encourage customers to use them. I will be marking the occasion this year by offering free wine (to myself only), and my customers will—in return—offer me free unsolicited advice on how to run my business. So, in many respects, it’s very much like every other day in my shop.
That we even need to do this is a sign of how retail has changed in the twenty-first century. Nobody needs to be reminded of the fact that online sales have chipped away at the foundations of bricks and mortar businesses, nor that the mantra for our survival is diversification, but I want to run a bookshop, not a cafe, so what can I do to survive? Over the years I’ve attempted to make sure that customers who visit my shop have an “experience” (I know, shoot me) and it seems to have worked. Each year I try to create something “quirky” about the shop (shoot me again), so I have a life-sized skeleton playing a violin hanging from the ceiling in one room, a model railway under the floor of the room in which we sell books about trains, and a bed on a mezzanine platform in the history section. With finite space, there’s a limit to what you can do, but for my business, people taking photographs of these things and sharing them on social media appears to have increased not only awareness of my shop’s existence, but footfall too, and footfall translates directly into sales.
The threat from online giants, though omnipresent, appears to have had more of an impact on the chain stores, whose faceless homogeneity and heavily discounted prices are more akin to the online buying experience; take Borders for example. In 2011 it closed 399 stores after forty years in business, and while this might seem alarming at first, what seems to have happened is that in the scorched earth it left behind, independent bookstores have taken root and grown, with a net gain of roughly 600 in the US during the period between then and now.
So, while I sit on this side of the Atlantic and wonder at the apparently infinite stupidity of some of my customers on the 28th of April, I will seek solace in a large glass of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and hope that the time for hand-wringing and navel-gazing about the future of independent bookstores is over, and that customers who understand the cultural and social significance of these places will also understand that their survival is dependent on them paying a little more for a book than they might do online.
To adapt Homer Simpson’s toast when Springfield lifts prohibition, “To customers; the cause of—and solution to—all of life’s problems!”
Shaun Bythell is the owner of The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland—Scotland’s largest second-hand bookshop—and is the author of The Diary of a Bookseller.