I’m no stranger to the allure of a bookshop. My childhood is replete with Sundays spent discovering books in the corner of our enormous local bookstore, my dad off in some other section of vast building whilst I seek out some new series to immerse myself in. The bookshop-café was the backdrop to many of those conversations that stick with you as a child, when you begin to see your parent as a real person. Perhaps it was coincidence that they occurred there, or perhaps new books purchased and old books remembered are the perfect jumping off points for finding out exactly why your dad didn’t study hard in university.
That bookshop, needless to say, is long gone. It was of a size and scale that now, perhaps save a few flagship stores in London, you only see in foreign countries. The memory of getting lost in a book shop, of being literally unable to find your parents amidst the sea of novels and stories, is probably a dying experience; something that our generation may be the last to experience.
I understand, therefore, people’s pain over the imminent threat of closure of independent book shops. The pandemic, as with every element of the economy and shop on our high street, has torn a practically irrevocable hole in the balance sheet of most bookshops. And unlike restaurants and cafés, which may go under but will surely be replaced, if our bookshops enter administration, they could fall extinct.
Tens of thousands of pounds have been raised via crowdfunding to help keep indie bookshops afloat following the pandemic
Some booksellers, and their fans, have settled upon a novel remedy: crowdfunding. Tens of thousands of pounds have been raised via crowdfunding to help keep indie bookshops afloat following the pandemic. Is this a sticking plaster on a gaping leg wound, or could crowdfunding actually have a role to play in preserving the independent British bookshop?
Firstly, we have to ask ourselves what’s causing the problem. As I said, the proximate source of strife for the independent bookseller is the pandemic, which caused almost every bookshop to close for months, inflicted a massive economy-wide recession, and substantially changed consumer demand for buying from physical book shops. However, other shops, whilst challenged on an individual level, seem unlikely to fold and never be replaced. The bookshop, more acutely than cafés and restaurants, faces a substantial long-term threat.
In the past couple of decades, consumers have switched rapidly away from traditional book retailers towards online. Amazon, now the disrupter of every element of the highstreet, began its life as an online book retailer. Indeed, consumers are also shifting away from paper books towards e-Books and audiobooks.
So, can crowdfunding help?
Crowdfunding can help to tide a bookstore over. It can relieve pressure on debts built up over the pandemic and could even, in theory, maintain solvency for struggling businesses in the next few months. It isn’t, and will never be, a long-term solution, however. To thrive in the future, bookshops have to be agile, and adapt to evolving consumer demand.
In short, bookshops cannot survive if all they sell are books
Online shopping has numerous advantages, especially for books. It’s not an item you need try on, they’re easy to return, and they’re rarely unique. Of course, the bookshop has things that no online retailer can ever have, that sentimental feeling of going to a shop. To turn a profit, bookshops are going to need to focus on this. They will need to double down on the experiential. In short, bookshops cannot survive if all they sell are books. They also need to sell the experience of being in a bookshop.
This means events, signings, and yes, it even means more of an emphasis on the bookshop café, the cake and coffee to eat with your latest literary acquisition. Crowdfunding can help keep businesses afloat in the short run, but it can’t sustain them forever. If you value independent book shops, think of them over Christmas if you’re buying books for loved ones and by all means support them through crowdfunding if you’re able. But in the long-run, the independent book shop can only survive if it adapts profoundly.
I love bookshops, browsing in them, reading there, and, occasionally, buying books there. My love, however, will not pay the rent. Booksellers must recognise that if they are merely selling a product, they can’t compete with the likes of Amazon. Theirs is a service industry, selling that elusive desire so many of us feel to just be around books. That is what sets the bookshop apart, and in the end, that’s what they have to bottle up and sell.