Does it matter if all the bookshops close?

Last week Stephen Hunt sent me the link for this fascinating article about one writer’s experience of shopping at the new digital-age Barnes & Noble – i.e. CRAP.  In their desperate drive to accomodate e-books,  B & N are apparently making it harder for bibliophiles to find actual tree books in their stores.

It’s a bleak time – it’s not so long ago Books Etc and Borders were thriving and now both have gone. Waterstone’s is still standing but is going through a rocky patch.  And with e-book sales booming, one can’t help but wonder if this will be the end of the traditional bookshop.

But if so – does that matter? Isn’t this just evolution in action?  Frankly, on the basis of the account above, Barnes & Noble DESERVE to go under.  And if they do, smarter people will set up bookshops that customers CAN use.  That’s how capitalism works; survival of the most shopped-at.

Of course, I love bookshops.  For me bookshops are the equivalent of pool-halls; they are the places where I misspent my youth, in a totally uncool and unrebellious fashion.  But I have to admit, it’s a while since I’ve been in a bookshop. The last time was a month ago, in Oxford, when I popped in to the best bookshop in the world – Blackwell’s on the High.  Floors and floors of magnificent books! This is a shop that was terrific even BEFORE Waterstone’s pioneered nice shops with coffee shops. (Blackwell’s doesn’t have one of those, but it does have a pub next door when I misspent many of my University years.)

But the cruel truth is – if bookshops die out, IT’S ALL MY FAULT. Yes, I personally will be totally to blame; along with all the others like me who are hooked on Amazon.

Amazon!  It’s the Devil isn’t it? All that power.  It’s like Starbuck’s, if Starbuck’s sold all the coffee in the world.  But it works. I bought 3 books on Amazon last week in about 30 seconds.  I saw a Dan Abnett (Embedded) in the Dealer’s Room at Eastercon, being sold at the Angry Robot stall by my pal Lee Harris and I thought – must buy that on Amazon where it’ll be two or three quid cheaper. So I did!  Thus chiselling Lee, Dan, and the entire imprint out of a few vital pence of profit. 

Then, also on that same day last week, I saw Adam Roberts’ name on a blog, and I thought – must buy New Model Army, which I saw in Waterstone’s recently, but it’ll be cheaper on Amazon! So I did.  I also bought another book. I’ve no idea what it is.  It came in the post yesterday in a brown parcel.  I get post!  I can’t tell you how much I enjoy getting post, and now rarely a day passes without Amazon packages arriving.

This is BETTER THAN GOING TO BOOKSHOPS.  Instead of indulging my ‘browsing in bookshops’ addiction, I am indulging my ‘getting lots of post’  addiction.  And, as I’ve indicated, if you browse in bookshops but THEN buy on Amazon,  you get the best of both worlds.

But, of course, bookshops will go out of business.

I can still remember WHY I switched my allegiance to Amazon.  It wasn’t to buy fiction books – because this was at a stage when my conscience wouldn’t have allowed such a thing. No it was the day I got a letter from Tom Stoppard (swank, swank, what a name dropper I am!) which was in fact a mass circular sent to all the members of the London Library, explaining why the subscription had to go up a zillion per cent. 

Now for those not familiar with it, the London Library is a sacred institution, as hallowed as the British Museum and the National Gallery. It’s not a public body; it’s a private lending library, based in St James’ s Square in London, and is the first port of call for many writers researching their novels and non-fiction books.  The site is vast, the building is old and beautiful, and it’s a richly anachronistic place. In fact, because the filing system was never updated, the geography section is still divided up into Bosnia, Serbia etc – BECAUSE THEY NEVER BOTHERED CHANGING IT WHEN YUGOSLAVIA WAS CREATED.  Now that’s just cool.  Television writer John Wilsher (who I worked with on The Bill many years ago) did a fabulous episode of New Tricks set in the London Library. If you go there often enough, you’ll meet P.D. James in the lift.  (She spends her days there, going up and down.)

And for years I used this library as my resource for non-fiction books – historical books (on Marco Polo, Newton etc etc), science books, philosophy books, crime books, you name it.  The subscription was a couple of hundred pounds a year but you could keep the books for as long as you liked.  So it was convenient, cheap; and it made me feel like a real writer.

Then the (cloth-headed) decison was made to double the subscription, but with a special clause whereby ‘deserving’ writers who weren’t earning much could get a discount.  How Dickensian!  And I thought – sod this.  And I started getting all my non-fiction on Amazon – often second hand.  I’ve now got towers of books in my study on Iraq, Nazi Germany, serial killers, demonology, you name it  - and they’re cheap, I get to own them, and ordering couldn’t be more convenient.

But in the process, I lost a bit of magic; the London Library magic. 

And now I’m using Amazon for fiction, I’ve forgotten the joy of browsing in bookshops and actually buying books there.  I’ve sold my soul to that old devil Amazon.

My fault! All my fault…!

By the way, copies of Debatable Space, Red Claw, Version 43 and Hell Ship are available here!

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