June 29, 2018
A(nother) UK bookshop has appealed to Twitter for help — but is it sustainable?
by Tom Clayton
It’s becoming an increasingly common sight online: a beloved indie bookstore—this week it was Imagined Things in Harrogate, Yorkshire—reports a record-low day of takings and earnestly appeals for help from Twitter. The good people of Twitter duly respond, placing orders online, retweeting furiously, and sending encouraging messages of support. The bookstore is buoyed by this, and lives to fight another day. Indeed, Tom Usher reports in the Metro that Imagined Things is now hoping to open an online store to cope with the resultant demand. Excellent news! Right?
This is heart-warming stuff, it genuinely is — but is it enough in the long term? To be depressingly real for a minute: not always. One-off appeals may make everyone feel nice, but they’re a temporary fix for a permanent problem. What often gets overlooked during these goodwill-fests is that there is a reason these businesses are asking for help in the first place: they are struggling. And though the public might still vaguely feel that indie bookstores deserve a place on the high street, that fuzzy feeling does not a sustainable business model make.
All the while, big chains such as Waterstones are treading on the toes of independents by replicating their model on a smaller, unbranded scale. This happened in Stockbridge, Edinburgh back in May, and while the chain have at least backtracked somewhat in the wake of the accompanying outcry, Diane King at the Edinburgh Evening News reports that the Stockbridge store will still go ahead, but as a full-blown Waterstones. Yay…? Hardly.
And of course, at the other end of the scale, an actual real-life evil villain and possessor of every retrograde human quality imaginable, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, is literally wondering aloud what to do with all that spare cash he has lying around… Imagined Things’ entire day’s takings on June 25th was £12.54. If you can’t see the link here, I’m not sure I can help you.
So what’s to be done? The simple and obvious answer is, and this can’t be said too many times: absolutely do not buy your books from Amazon. Sure, it’s cheap and convenient — like buying food from a vending machine. The other thing to remember is: nearly every bookshop in the UK offers a next-day ordering service. If a book’s got an ISBN and is in print, they can get it for you. Give them them a ring! Make a new friend! Who knows, the people who work there might even be able to recommend a really good book next time! (Spoiler alert: they will.) This kind of cultural sea change, rather than responding to one-off cries for help, is the only possible way of keeping indie bookstores alive — but it relies on regular custom. We must fight our addiction to convenience. That’s easier said than done… but if we want those fuzzy feelings we get from individual pledges to continue, it’s a fight worth taking on.
Tom Clayton is the publishing executive at Melville House UK.