Old Post: Independent bookshops

 I went to an independent bookshop today. I’m not going to name it, though I’d like to. I went in to (briefly) talk to the proprietor about the magazine, and leave some flyers. I also wanted to buy a book. The encounter went something like this:Tielserrath: Hello, I’m looking for a book and I can’t find it on your shelves. I wondered if you had it or could order it. it’s called The Book of Dave.

Proprietor: (blank look) The book of what?

T: The Book of Dave. The latest book by Will Self.

P: I’ve not heard of it.

T: Well…it’s been all over the broadsheets. It’s the current Guardian Book Club Book.

P: Oh…maybe I think I know the one you mean. What was it again?

T: The Book of Dave.

P: (looks on computer) Here it is. I can order it. It will be here tomorrow if I get some more orders today, otherwise it will be here on Saturday.

(pause while address details written down)

T: I also wanted to show you a new magazine that we’re launching and give you some flyers and an invitation to the launch party.

P: (glance at invitation) Oh, that’s a bit far away.

(It’s about 20 miles.)

T: Well, we’d be pleased to see as many independent booksellers as can make it, because we are going to feature an independent bookshop in every magazine. The feature in the first issue is about an independent that’s successful and expanding, and I think that’s fascinating because people are so pessimistic about the future of the independents. Anyway, I’ll leave a letter and some flyers-

P: Oh, there’s no point in leaving flyers. People aren’t interested. They won’t pick them up. I’ll take a poster.

T: We don’t have posters at the moment. We’ll have them once the magazine has been launched.

P: Well, I won’t stock any unless I’ve had a free copy to look through.

T: (wonders if the same applies to the books she stocks. From the look of the shelves, this may be the case.) Well, I’ll pop back after the launch with one, shall I? (Departs with relief. Never has pouring rain been more attractive than staying in a bookshop.)

(NB On a previous recce I had identified this woman as the proprietor.)

I don’t think it’s unrealistic to expect the owner of a bookshop to keep up with the new releases from major UK writers. Especially as nowadays newspapers can be accessed for free on the internet. I would have thought that knowing which books were being featured in reviews or book club supplements would be important, as those are books people are likely to come in and ask for. In fact, isn’t doing this an automatic part of the job description if you are selling new books?

And the flyers…I didn’t type out the brief pitch I made for the magazine, but I did make it clear to her that this was a magazine whose main aim was to help independent bookshops sell more books. I thought the point of flyers in this situation was that as customers buy books, the bookseller says, ‘Oh, by the way, there’s a new magazine just out which I think you might like. I’ll give you one of these (tucks flyer into book) so you can read a bit more about it. Let me know if you’d like me to get any of the books they review for you.’ With luck, the bookseller sells a magazine, and as a result of that sells more books, too. Everyone happy. The old win-win situation.

When I entered this shop I was upbeat and enthusiastic. I was met by the attitude of  ‘you’re wasting my time and I’m not interested’. Throughout, I was the sole customer; I was not preventing anyone else from getting attention, and there was no sign that a stocktake or anything else of importance was in progress. I waited at the till for five minutes before anyone even noticed I was there.

A few months ago I was in New Zealand, visiting the potteries (among other things). At one shop, showcasing the work of several local artists, I identified myself as a part-time potter. I was immediately dragged around to the back room, plied with tea and cake, and given a tour of the premises. We talked about many aspects of pottery for around two hours; I spent quite a bit of money in the shop, and I felt I had met people who would be successful in their work, and give pleasure to their customers. They were open and enthusiastic.

It feels awful to come away from a business thinking that it doesn’t deserve to survive. But there are a few independents in other market towns near me – it’s a little further to travel, but I’ll go a bit further to meet people who actually care about what they do. Or I’ll buy the books in Foyles when I’m next in London.

So. I’ll see what happens when I go to pick up The Book of Dave. Strangely, I’m not hopeful.

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