Today, Saturday the 14th of September, is the launch of the Books Are My Bag campaign. This brainchild of the Bookseller Association is designed to celebrate bookshops all across the UK, from small to large, chain to indie. Pop in to your local purveyor of books and the chances are that you will find them giving out tote bags, serving orange food and drinks and generally having a party. There’s been a nationwide media campaign to promote it, with celebrity participation and an awful lot of back-slapping and people saying ‘aren’t bookshops great?’.
And bookshops are great. I don’t know anybody who would deny that. But this isn’t how to save them – which is what the organisers of Books Are My Bag are hoping to do. A free tote bag and an advertising campaign is not going to rescue a retail sector in decline.
Many bookshops have closed over the last few years, victims of the recession and the advent of the e-reader. Many have also survived, if only barely in some cases, and they all have something in common. They have specialised.
No bookshop is going to make it any more by trying to be all things to all people. My all-time favourite bookshop, Barter Books in Alnwick, is and always has been a second-hand bookshop. It specialises in a carefully curated selection of used books, all tidily laid out in a warm and welcoming environment, inviting for browsers. The result is a fantastic level of discoverability – more so than any website could ever offer. I never leave empty-handed, and the car park is always full.
In Lancaster there is (though currently trying to find new retail premises) Interstellar Master Traders – the most comprehensive SFF bookshop I have ever been in apart from Forbidden Planet in London. True, every time I have walked through the door I have nearly been overcome by the urge to roll my sleeves up and give it a damned good tidy, but that does not detract from the fact that they stock every SFF author I could think of, and many more besides. Maybe new premises will help them spread their stock out a bit more and prevent the need for customers to clamber over piles of Terry Pratchett in order to reach Douglas Adams.
Closer to home, the bookshop I work in has reached an unspoken truce with the other major bookshop in town. They stock the piles of James Patterson, we stock the monographs. I have no hesitation in sending a customer down to them to browse the children’s section – we got rid of ours because we simply couldn’t compete. It’s done everyone good; we have more space to focus on what we do well, our competitors can focus on what they do well, and the customers have the choice of two great bookshops.
That is what will save bookshops. Not an orange-themed party with free tote bags and Fanta. Every member of staff in every bookshop knows what will work; what their customers want from them. We should all do what we do best, and then yes, by all means celebrate. Celebrate our own uniqueness, our own quirkiness, our own corner of the market, no matter how small. Because bookshops are great, and if we can hang on in the face of the recession and the e-reader then we deserve to have a party.