Friday, 8 June 2012

Discount Guilt

We had a visit last week from an old friend, an American married to an even older friend from our student days.  Jim is an interesting guy with a complicated story.   He has gone from abandonment at age 8 in Alabama, through foster care, drifting and working on the railroads of the South West, to the salvation of Higher Education and -- 40 years later -- is now a professor of anthropology and linguistics within the State University of New York.

As you do, when the conversational flow ebbs,  I got out some toys.  One of these was my Kindle.  I had noticed the preposterous bulk and weight of Jim's baggage (not clothes; being an academic travelling between conferences, he was lugging several hundredweight of books and papers) and I was amazed to discover he had never considered using an e-book reader.

I was even more amazed to discover he didn't really use Amazon.  He was eloquent about his desire to support his local independent bookshop.  I felt a familiar rush of guilt:  by buying so many books from Amazon was I, unthinkingly, driving small bookshops out of business?

Then I read this week's NB column in the TLS, in which the closing of the Village Voice bookshop in Paris was remarked.  I knew all about the legend of Shakespeare & Co., where impecunious expat writers in Paris could bed down under the shelves at night, but didn't know there was a Village Voice in Paris.  Well, soon there won't be.  The column concludes, "There are plenty of book-buyers ... with a love of independent bookshops and discounted mail-order books on their consciences".

Argh, more e-guilt!

But then I thought, hold on, when have I ever lived near, or enjoyed the services of, one of these legendary independent bookshops that I seem to have been driving out of business? A place where the owner, like the owner of the Paris Village Voice, "knew her customers' tastes and was able to point out books they would want to know about"?  I think I'd have noticed that, surely?

No, never.  I have spent many thousands of pounds in bookshops large and small, independent and chain, specialist and generalist, in a number of towns, small, large and global, and have never, ever, not once been guided to a book I hadn't asked for, or exchanged anything other than transactional words with the owner (or, more usually, the till operator).  Perhaps, despite repeated visits and multiple purchases in the same shops over many years, I looked more like a sociopath or shoplifter than a valued customer.   Above all, with the notable exception of a very few specialist shops like Zwemmer's late-lamented Art and Photography bookshops on Charing Cross Road, I have hardly ever entered a bookshop selling new stock and thought:  "Such riches! I had no idea! Can I afford this?"  Second-hand shops, of course, are a different story.

So, enough with the guilt!

Small, independent bookshops had already started to disappear in the UK in the 1980s, when small business rates and rents became prohibitive, and had all but gone from most towns before 2000 -- long before Amazon began to dominate the scene.  They went out of business because there wasn't enough money to be made from selling books.  The profit margins are too small, the turnover is too low: the genius of Amazon is to turn a loss-making hobby into a thriving business.

I know, I know, minimally-waged slaves toil in the Amazon book-mines, starved of daylight and bruised from falling hardback cookery books and bleeding from multiple paper-cuts inflicted by folding cardboard mailers.  But, ditto Tesco and every other profitable business in the land.  This is what trades unions are for, isn't it?  And how much was that till-operator being paid by the sainted independent bookshop owner?

I'm inclined to think that not buying books online is now less principled resistance than nostalgia.  Booksellers seem to me less important to support, these days,  than the small publishers and galleries who take the risk of producing books by unprofitable unknown artists and writers in the first place.  If I want to feel virtuous I like to buy direct from their websites: for example, I've just ordered a copy of Garry Fabian Miller's Home Dartmoor from the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh, and a copy of In the Fields of Gold by Miquel Llonch from the publisher Poursuite in France.

But, if anyone knows a bookshop within 25 miles of Southampton owned by someone who could have pointed me at those two titles, I'd be very glad to hear about it.  I do know a bookshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which can, however that one is approximately 4900 miles away.

It's called Photo-Eye, and luckily it runs an excellent and informative "current awareness" service and mail-order website.  Out the back, there's quite a nice gallery of photographic work, too.  The staff don't care how weird you look (I often drop by in my pajamas*) and they never close.

* I keep meaning to post about this:  do you, too, keep seeing people, usually women, on the street in nightwear and slippers?  When did this start happening?  It's as if they have decided to live out in real life those unsettling dreams of, um, being on the street in  nightwear and slippers.


Paul Mc Cann said...

I support my local bookshop for purely selfish reasons. I can get a book in my hand and evaluate it. Over the last few years any books I have bought that have disappointed me have been bought from Amazon. Also, I have yet to find a way to browse in Amazon that equals browsing in a shop where I can while away a pleasant half hour in the photography section.

Re your final comment. Slovens? Slatterns? Chavs? Perhaps, though I have a dreadful feeling this phenomenon is a 'fashion statement' God help us.

Mike C. said...


Spending my working day in the midst of a collection of one million plus volumes, I suppose I'm unfairly inclined to be sniffy about the average bookshop's range of stock. But I do find Amazon an invaluable resource, and to receive an item shrink-wrapped rather than shop-soiled (with the option to return it) is a big plus with "collectibles".

It occurs to me that those pajama-clad women may have misunderstood the meaning of "living the dream" ...


doonster said...

I thought it was the big chain booksellers (e.g. Waterstones) that drove the independents out of business long before Amazon.

I find that Amazon also does a far better job of suggesting things I may be interested in than any human has (scarily good sometimes).

I also love the browsing opportunity offered by the Kindle store - any time I like, as I think of things that I may be interested in. If the Kindle store ever gets linked to Wikipedia, I'm going to be in financial trouble.

Mike C. said...


Yes, I expect that was a large part of it. Southampton is a large-ish town of about 300,000 people, yet practically all of the independents went years ago. When Borders went last year, Waterstone's was last man standing.

I believe the new Kindles have a built-in Wikipedia browser...


Struan said...

I hated, *hated* shopping from an early age, and as soon as I was old enough to be allowed out on my own I would escape the family weekend shop in Southampton to Gilberts Bookshop. Given their habit of letting me lounge about reading the stock I'm amazed to find them still in business. Later, I would shuttle between them and the City Art Gallery, but the upper reaches of their fire-trap staircases were my first refuge from rank commercialism.

My mother-in-law extensively uses a pair of small bookshops in Berwick-upon-Tweed and Eyemouth which seems to have specialised in being better at ordering things than their clientele. Small stock, but friendly and helpful non-pushy types behind the counter. They make most of their money giving advice and help to people buying presents for others, particularly children.

I suspect most viable bookshops have long-leases. Few can compete with the shift-em-quick mobile phone and gimcrack clothing emporiums.

Beyond Words in Edinburgh is a useful UK resource for photographic books. They have a steady trickle of Aperture titles in their bargain basement.

Mike C. said...


No, Gilberts went years ago, I'm sad to say, assuming you mean the cute multi-floor shop off Above Bar.

Myself and several readers of this blog have reason to remember with fondness the tiny but well-stocked SPCK bookshop in Stevenage -- those racks of Penguins, Pelicans and Picadors were a life-changing taste of better things. Gone now, of course.

I think my problem is that I know better than any bookseller what is available and what I want -- it would be surprising if that wasn't the case, really.

Do you remember the other multi-storeyed bookshop that used to be in Bedford Place, Southampton, opposite City Photographic? I found some true 2nd-hand gems in there, but it closed in the late 80s. I can't remember the name. I also found some Clare Leighton prints ("The Farming Year") in loose boxes there, which are framed on the wall in front of me right now as I type.


struan said...

A shame about Gilberts. The shop I remember was a tottering Dickensian vertical warren. Bursting with oddball joinery and serendipiditous juxtapositions. Google seemed to imply it was still about, but it's been a long while since I was back in Southampton to shop.

I *think* I remember the Bedford place shop. In fact, it's possible I'm remembering that and not Gilberts. My memory is good with spaces, bad with names. Perhaps both of Southampton's staircase-masquerading-as-bookshops have merged in my memory.

I've found out the hard way that I can't trust reviews, which makes living in a foreign country a bit of a pig-in-a-poke experience. I'm going to try Kathleen Jamie this summer and blame you if I don't like it :-)

I envy you the Clare Leightons. She was one of the first artists I turned up when I started googling pollards in art. I'd love to have a wall of her work.

Mike C. said...


Yes, you are remembering Gilberts -- a classic warren of little rooms off a tightly-winding staircase -- like a miniature version of Thorntons in Oxford's Broad Street (also gone). Its stock was mainly junk by the time it closed.

Well, hardly a wall of Leightons -- I bought four that took my fancy. If I'd know what the set wase worth, though, I'd have bought them all (I think they were about £2.50 each!). I also found some very lurid Japanese block-prints on crepe paper, which I must get identified sometime.


Tony_C said...

Did you mean pyjamas? That's old news, Mike. Nice take on it, though - about the dreams.

Have you tried

I've come across some good books, new and used there, and the person at the the till has never tried to say, "People who bought this book also bought...". But perhaps they should have?

However, far and away the best place to find the book you never knew you always wanted is charity shop skips.

P.S. I can also recommend My Back Pages, Balham (Gateway to the South).

Mike C. said...


David's is a new on me. I used to enjoy browsing in Moores (?) in Tilehouse Street, Hitchin.

For secondhand, you can't beat Abebooks ( which aggregates just about every serious 2nd hand dealer in the world (inc. David's of Letchworth and My Back Pages, I see).

The trouble is, everyone can compare prices online now, so bargains are fewer than they once were, though an Oxfam skip is always going to be hard to beat.