Out of print
For a few days just after Christmas, my family and I took a short vacation in California (not having had any summer holiday last year). We stayed in Santa Barbara, a rather beautiful town on the Pacific about 100 miles north of Los Angeles. As we often do while on holiday, on the first day we headed straight for the local bookshops. In fact, Santa Barbara has a Borders bookstore and a Barnes & Noble. No, that’s not correct, they had these. On our first day we were able to get into Borders, but discovered they were closing down. We had a look around anyway and thought that, the next day, we would head across the road to Barnes & Noble. But the next day we found that, suddenly and as far as we could see without warning, Barnes & Noble had shut completely. We decided against planning any other bookshop visits in case that it also prompted them to close.
Well, as people in these islands know, this is not a unique American phenomenon. Over the past few days the largest chain of bookstores here, Waterstones, has announced the closure of several shops, including its two Dublin ones. This comes not long after Borders in the UK and Ireland also closed down. Analysts looking closely at the bookseller business now assume that, within five years, no major chain of bookshops will be trading.
What are we to make of this? Well, one thing we don’t need to conclude is that nobody is reading books. That is manifestly not the case. But how people buy them has changed fundamentally. Those who – how shall I put this – are not opting for very demanding books are more often than not buying them in Tesco supermarkets or in newsagent chains. Others are buying them online, in some cases in ebook versions. In fact, ever since Amazon’s business model came right the writing was on the wall for the big chains.
So will we now have to shop for books online only? No, I don’t think so. It has been suggested that one type of shop now making a comeback is the independent (and often smaller) bookstore. And that may well be true. I don’t know if I’m at all typical, but I now buy most of my books online, but I do walk into some small bookshops I know about once a month and browse, and invariably I come out with something bought. Moreover, when I was shopping in Waterstones I went straight for the section I has in mind. Now, in a smaller space, I look around at everything, and my purchasing has become much more eclectic.
It’s not long ago that concerned bibliophiles regularly complained about the major bookstore chains, arguing that their approach was anti-intellectual and not based on a real understanding of books. Well, they’ve gone. Independent shops are back. And access to a huge range of books online is easy and fast. This morning, while reading about Waterstones in the newspaper, I thought I would miss them. Maybe I won’t.