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A New Year’s resolution worth keeping: support bookshops instead of Amazon

30 December 2015

9:00 AM

30 December 2015

9:00 AM

Every day in the run up to Christmas, sometimes several times a day, the front doorbell rang with a parcel for one of my five sets of neighbours. Each time, I ran down six flights of stairs to scribble a hieroglyph for the man from the Royal Mail.

It has not been a season of ding-dongs-merrily-on-high, but of the ping of text messages – ‘A delivery coming today. Could you bear to…?’ – and the insistent buzz of the door. I regret revealing at the last residents’ meeting that I worked from home.

None of the parcels were for me. This time last year, I made a New Year’s resolution to give up my appalling Amazon habit. What with one-click ordering it had become fantasy shopping, clicking on Penguins as if they were penny sweets. I was spending hundreds of unthinking pounds – and never visiting the bookshops I claimed to cherish.

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And I have stuck to it. With only one shameful lapse, I have bought my books in bookshops. What a joy it has been.

Had I bought my books online this year, I would never have learnt that the most shop-lifted books at Waterstones Notting Hill Gate were Yotam Ottolenghi’s. One conspiratorial bookseller revealed, as she returned from the stock room with a copy of the chef’s Jerusalem, that they were keeping Ottolenghi under lock and key. She had a hunch the books were being sold off a barrow in Portobello market. So great is the ardour for za’atar, tahini and charred okra in this part of London, it has sparked a local crime wave.

I am indebted, meanwhile, to the bookshop owner in Oxfordshire, who, observing that I had bought rather a lot of Virginia Woolf lately, suggested I might try something more uplifting. He was right. Weeks of reading Woolf’s diaries and letters had left me gloomy.  He sent me away with Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. Fizzy grog and buttered eggs did me a world of good. An internet algorithm can only direct you to more of the same; it cannot anticipate that four Karl Ove Knausgaards have left you in glum, naval-gazing spirits and recommend a course of anti-depressant Trollope.

And nor does the internet enthuse about its favourite title by clutching the paperback to its chest, as one young man at Daunt on Marylebone High Street did. Pressing the book – Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net – to his Fair Isle jumper he advised that while he was ‘devoted’ to her first novel, it was not ‘quintessential’ Iris Murdoch. For that I needed The Sea, The Sea the most ‘Iris Murdoch, Iris Murdoch’ of her novels. It was a lovely bit of phrase-making.

It is the pleasure of lines of conversation eavesdropped in bookshops that has fully turned me against online book shopping. In Winchester, on the last night of term, I found myself in P & G Wells, the bookshop next to the college. Scholars, clever and bumptious, were queuing to cash in their book tokens awarded for top marks. The phrase they all used, announcing their winnings to the bookseller, was that they had ‘raised books.’ This, an old boy explained, was ‘awarded by a div don to the best man in each half.’ It might have been another language. Chaperoning parents understood, and beamed.

I bought a copy of Diana Athill’s Alive, Alive Oh! and fervently hoped that if I am alive, alive oh, as she is, at 97, I will still be buying my Christmas books from proper shops with oak fronts and bevelled glass windows.

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Show comments
  • Amanda Craig

    It shouldn’t be a case of either/or. I treasure amazon for making it so easy to get authors’ back-lists (though abe.books also do this) but also love going into independents, my favourites being Daunt’s Hampstead, (now owned by Waterstones) Primrose Hill Books and Goldsboro. But if you aren’t a Londoner, or in a university city, it’s almost impossible to buy new books without amazon.

  • E.I.Cronin

    Bookshop rationing works, I allow myself one visit a month and save up so I can splurge and support the few remaining indie booksellers. It’s torture but am solvent with no credit card debt at all.

    The last time I lapsed was over a beautifully produced book of screenprinting posters in the window. Lured in I told myself ‘You don’t need this, you don’t have room for this, you can’t afford it’ then clutched it to my chest like Gollum and Precious and walked straight to the cash register.

  • Malcolm Stevas

    “I was spending hundreds of unthinking pounds – and never visiting the bookshops I claimed to cherish.”
    I admire the writer’s position and would/should emulate her; but it has to be said, one would spend many more “unthinking pounds” at ordinary bookshops. I love books, and bookshops. I buy lots of s/h books from ordinary shops. Most of the new books I buy – or which are bought for me – come from Amazon. I still recall my first ever Amazon purchase – could it really have been at the end of the ’90s? I ordered a book one Monday afternoon, and it arrived the next day. Wow, I thought. This is cool: I got it immediately instead of waiting while the shop ordered it, and I saved money too.

  • RKae

    As an independent, self-published author, I have found bookstore owners and managers to be the biggest jerks alive. Their desire to get everything through “official” distributors just feeds the lopsided corporate model, shoves independents further into the shadows, and drives up the prices.

    The romance of the bookstore is a lie, and I’ll consider it a wonderful day when the last bookstore closes.

    God bless amazon for leveling the playing field.

    • Annika Milisic-Stanley Art

      This is strange, as I have found independently owned, small bookstore owners to be incredibly kind and willing to host me for launches at considerable cost to themselves both here in the UK and in Italy. I recently published my debut novel on Tajikistan with Cinnamon Press. The big chains are the ones who only want to host the big publishing houses and who seem unwilling to help small independents.

  • Violin Sonata.

    Well that’s fine if you want some ancient tome and nice just to have a ramble about,
    especially when away. But if looking for something particular then Amazon is just easier.
    There is room in the world for both.

  • Ron Todd

    When the nearest book shop is a half hour walk a twenty minutes (so the rail company claim) train journey and then another half hour walk away and a large part of that bookshop is now dedicated to selling coffee and a large part of the remainder sells either children’s books or the type of populist books I can get in Tesco, Amazon becomes the easy option.

  • Paul W

    There is one point – Bezos, the man behind the Beast Amazon is spending millions on commercial space development through his company, Blue Origin. Something I regard as worthwhile.

    Blue Origin’s New Shepherd reseable stage one was launched sub orbitally and returned vertically, a first making spaceflight cheaper – generally a good thing I should think.

    So, this suggests there is an argument that some money spent at Amazon slyly moved away through Luxemborg is in a sense funding space enterprise efficiently – something definately not done by governments with our tax pounds and dollars.

    I haven’t thought this through fully but I suspect my local book shops, newsagents and Waterstone’s will still have the lions share of my literary spending.

    • Ron Todd

      If the government and all the thousands of supposedly clever civil servants working for it cannot come up with a tax system that big companies cannot so easily sidestep then they do not deserve to get the money.

      • Paul W

        I pretty much agree with that. And to an extent it makes my point about Bezos spending Amazon money on commercial space enterprises.

        Government and always badly managed public employees (worldwide) are just so wasteful whilst achieving so much less than they should.

        Another point, anyone any good in HMCE quickly moves to higher tax axxounting consultants,.

  • Paul W

    I don’t use Amazon for all the usual “moral” reasons. That said, if you find you need something that is really best obtained online (cables for obscure cameras, phones and tablets for instance) browse the Amazon Market Place and when you find what you want, contact the vendor direct avoiding the beast itself.

    • polidorisghost

      As I mentioned below, look at http://www.abebooks.co.uk
      I haven’t got shares!

      • Martyn Jones

        For info; Abe is owned by Amazon.

        • polidorisghost

          Blast!
          Collapse of stout party
          How about the bookshops though?

          • Violin Sonata.

            One is good for what is quick, easy and exactly what you want.
            The other is for pleasurable browsing and the feel of ancient tomes that
            you may or may not take home.
            A lot depends on the urgency or the freedom that time allows .

  • Trofim

    You used to be able to inhale the beneficent aroma of pipe tobacco in old book shops. That is now taboo.

    • Paul W

      Ah, but bok shops still have a great smell. I can do without the tobacco smoke.

    • RKae

      You can still fart and get the same effect.

  • davidofkent

    Waterstones has bought up almost every independent bookshop in the country. What is the difference between Amazon and Waterstones, then?

    • polidorisghost

      You can use http://www.abebooks.co.uk which links in to a large number of second hand bookshops throughout the UK and the world. My first port of call

  • http://english-pensioner.blogspot.co.uk/ english_pensioner

    This is OK if you’ve got a bookshop, but the only shop locally that sells books is WH Smith, and you are unlikely to get reading advice there; they’ve just installed a self-service till and you’re lucky if you see any staff. The two nearest towns have ‘bookshops’. part of a chain selling discounted end of line books. The nearest town with a bookshop (if it’s still there) is some 25 miles. Hardly worth driving and paying the parking costs for a book. Using my free bus pass, it takes over 2 hours each way on three different buses, if they run to time, so it’s a whole day out.
    Meanwhile I’ve found project Gutenberg and have been re-reading some of Edgar Wallace’s books about Africa on-line, totally politically incorrect, and books which would be hard to find in shops!

    • Chas Grant

      Gutenberg Australia has a lot of classic novels which aren’t on the main Gutenberg site – well worth a look.

      • http://english-pensioner.blogspot.co.uk/ english_pensioner

        Thanks, I tend to prefer books from the past rather than many modern authors.

        • E.I.Cronin

          I hear you. Since my late teens I was transfixed by early 20thC European literature (1900 – 1940) and somehow never felt the slightest need to explore the rest of the century (apart from non-fiction and bios). Am quite happy in my niche. Long live musty second hand booksellers.

        • Chas Grant

          I forgot another great Australian website with lots of out of copyright favourites:

          http://freeread.com.au/

          • http://english-pensioner.blogspot.co.uk/ english_pensioner

            Great, I’ll add it to my list.

  • P_S_W

    So it’s not the books, it’s the conversations that go with it.

    Each to their own…

    • Violin Sonata.

      Yes indeed P-S-W quite right, sir.

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