What price a high street bookstore?
Living in London back in the ’80s, I took bookstores for granted. We all did. There were literally scores of them ranging from huge, all-inclusive, multi-floored kingdoms to tiny, hole-in-the-wall treasure troves specialising in one select genre. But regardless of their passion or panache, they all had one trait in common – knowledgeable staff who knew what they stocked, where they stocked it, and how quickly it could be ordered if they were currently out of stock. They recommended other stores, gave tips and advice, and shared a general love of all things books.
There was nothing sweeter than whiling away a few hours browsing – in its true and pre-Google sense – around the departments. Reading the small handwritten personal reviews stuck precariously on the shelves or discovering new-to-me authors with a whole series of potential gems already waiting on the shelf.
I found, I bought, I read, I hoarded. I moved.
Next up, Stockholm.
As foreign cities go, English books are easy to come by in the Swedish capital. Within a certain range and relativity. And with the additional 25% VAT, import duty and shipping costs. To be fair, a good deal of popular English fiction, for example, is translated into Swedish and readily available, but I prefer to read my books in the original albeit English or Swedish, and back then English took a little effort.
One wintery Sunday in November 1986, I trekked through the snow to buy Jackie Collins’ latest bestseller. Cold but excited, I was devastated to be told it was not yet available in Stockholm stores. Such was my frustration, I penned Jackie a letter that very afternoon, expressing my disappointment at the deprivation of a good read and slammed it angrily into the mailbox.
Several weeks later, my good pal and roommate called me at work.
“You’ve got a letter from Jackie Collins!”
“Whaaaaaa?!! You sure?”
“Well, who else do you know in LA?”
Ha! Bless her heart. But it still didn’t solve the problem of acquiring new English books in Stockholm, and there were still only so many I could cram into a suitcase during my visits to the UK. So sigh.
Next up, Amazon.
Hallelujah. Problem solved. Unlimited supply of seemingly infinite titles. Reasonably priced and swiftly delivered to my door. Reviews by other readers and personal recommendations thrown in. And here I was, back to browsing for books. Google-style. For me, for my children, for gifts and just because I could.
My daughter developed into an avid reader and her trips to the well-stocked Stockholm Sci-Fi shop were becoming fiendishly expensive. But once she was eagerly awaiting new books in old series to be published – and she’d learned to navigate the Internet at lightning speed – she too turned to Amazon. She wanted to read them right now. And, as she was quick to point out, Amazon was much cheaper than the English imports in the Sci-Fi shop. She got more books for her bucks.
So even more books began arriving at our door. And would probably have continued to do so, had we not travelled to the US and realised my daughter’s hand luggage contained over 3 kg of books. And she found new books in NYC, which meant even more weight to carry home. And then daily in her school bag.
So next birthday, we got her an Amazon Kindle.
Addicted from the get-go, she explained the benefits of a Kindle to anyone she could corner long enough to listen. Including me. It is amazing! It keeps track of all the books you are reading, you can arrange them into collections and, best of all, you can download a new one in under a minute. Kindle editions are cheaper than printed editions and you can always start by downloading a free sample to test whether you enjoy the first chapter. And – her face flushed with conviction – it saves millions of trees.
No way, I said. Nothing can possibly match up to the feel of a book in your hands, and what happens if you drop a Kindle in the bath?
But by the time we returned to the US three years later, I’d slipped my Kindle into my hand luggage too. It can hold over 1,100 books and weighs roughly the same as one paperback. I fill it with old favourites, new favourites, interesting samples I come across and magazines. I highlight quotes I want to keep and, yes, Kindle editions are cheaper, immediate and don’t involve any extra shipping costs.
Back in New York, my daughter once again requested a visit to a bookstore to check out what was new in America. We asked the concierge where the closest bookstore was located. He looked blank and after a few moments thought, told us that he honestly didn’t know – most bookstores have closed down now because everyone buys their books from Amazon.
I was stunned. I’d noticed the music shops had folded in Stockholm, but we still have our bookstores.
I thought of that old romantic comedy, You’ve got mail, and how we all rooted and wept for Meg Ryan’s character in her failed bid to save her cosy children’s bookstore in the face of crippling competition from the giant book chain across the road. That film was released in 1993, just one year before Amazon set up shop in 1994.
I started to ask around. Turned out many bookstores in Britain had met a similar fate. They can’t compete with mass-selling Amazon. High street bookstores are sadly doing a Dodo.
And yet, as much as I see the writing on the wall, I’m still guilty of downloading Kindle books for the instant gratification, decent prices and flexibility. And light library convenience.
So what price a cosy high street bookstore? Too high. But I have a foreboding feeling that we’re all going to regret that, when we realise we’ve laid another little piece of our past and heritage to rest in the name of cost and convenience.
But then again, in the face of global warming, what price trees? But that would be a whole new blog.