The last leg of the Christmas rush is well and truly upon us, and with the credit crunch looming, everyone is on the hunt for a bargain. At any time of year, high street booksellers are crammed with signs offering two for one offers, Amazon emails its customers with the promise of discounts, and supermarkets routinely offer cut-price bestsellers next to the stationary and birthday cards. Christmas, especially this Christmas, is even better. Or worse, if you’re an independent bookshop already struggling to survive. They can’t afford to lower their prices to meet or beat those of their competitors, they can’t give you a free Toblerone with every purchase – the most you’re likely to get is a free bookmark advertising a book you’ll probably never buy and wouldn’t read if you did.
So why, when their better-known competitors are chomping at the bit to offer you a half-price copy of Lord of the Rings with a free copy of The Silmarillion thrown in for good measure, should you wander off the beaten track and pay full price?
For one thing, they’re often a lynchpin of the local community, and in an increasingly cyber-driven age, who can afford to turn down the chance of a flesh and blood connection? When LGBT store Gay’s the Word was threatened with closure, countless regulars spoke to the press with stories about how the shop had changed – or in some cases, even saved – their lives. In smaller towns and cities, small bookshops are often the main provider of books about local history, creating a community of writers and readers as well as supporting small presses. If they go, then the community that has been built around them vanishes as well.
And whilst they may not be able to compete on price or boast an in-store Starbucks, even the smallest bookshop can rival the signings advertised in the window of Borders or Waterstones. WordPower, the Edinburgh-based, left-wing leaning bookshop, hosts readings at the Festival every year where new writers and old favourites showcase their work side by side. London’s Crockett and Powell and Bath’s Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights all run popular events improved by the quality of intimacy they offer.
If that’s not enough, it may also make you a better person. Many booksellers say that shoppers at independent bookstores can be more accepting of the retail industry’s flaws – having to wait for an overseas Amazon order, say, or not having a magically replenishable supply of popular books. At larger stores, “all the usual sense of customer entitlement is magnified, and staff just have to keep on smiling,” one bookseller at a chain bookstore sighs. At small bookshops, you’re already sticking it to the man – you don’t need to abuse retail staff into the bargain.
And the benefit doesn’t just belong to the shopper. “Independent bookstores and presses take more risks and often put out more interesting books than the big houses,” author Catherine Lundoff says. “Without them the reading and writing landscape would be a poorer place.” She’s right – I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve stumbled across hidden treasures, books that I would never have heard of, on the shelves of Murder One or Foyles – or even courtesy of those ubiquitous bookmarks. Independents are willing to go out on a limb to promote new authors, and their instincts are usually right – they were the ones who, for better or for worse, originally made Harry Potter a success.
Many of them, especially in London, are specialist – Murder One, on Charing Cross Road, offers only horror, romance and (of course) crime novels. Covent Garden’s Coffee, Cake and Kink has an impressive array of erotica that you can peruse whilst nibbling on a slice of passion cake. Whilst you can buy thrillers and porn anywhere – including Waterstones – it’s the difference between shopping for vegetables at ASDA and a farmer’s market. The produce may be the same, but it’s the atmosphere that keeps you coming back for more.
Don’t forget, the chains can only negotiate good deals by using their selling power to lower buying prices, so those lower down the food chain have to get by on less and watch, while those above them get richer. And, although the range of books on offer may appear to be more diverse, in larger stores our choice is actually compromised – what’s on the shelves is all too often dictated by head office and won’t vary from store to store, whereas independent shops have the luxury of individual input into the book-buying process. A smaller store can offer a more personalized shopping experience, not just a checklist of Books to Promote, which can be great when you want to grab something to read on the train, but less helpful when it comes to picking a present for Auntie Margot who only likes Restoration drama, socialism and hydrangeas.
The time of new year’s resolutions approaches and if, like me, one of your goals for 2009 is to support more local businesses, you first have to ensure that they’ll still be around. This Christmas, give two gifts for the price of one – buy a loved one the novel they’ve been hinting at for weeks, and help a small business stick around until next year’s Christmas rush. Oh, and don’t forget the free bookmarks.