Bookshops, Amazon, and Libraries

Magazin Stadtbibliothek Mainz

It’s a commonly-held belief that bookshops are a dying breed, that ebooks and online bookshops (especially Amazon) are killing them. Many book lovers decry this turn of events, yet (in some cases) still continue to buy books online. Personally, I’m no more concerned by the closure of bookshops than I am by the closure of any other business. I am truly saddened, however, when I hear of libraries closing or being reduced in size.

I grew up in a mining village in South Yorkshire. There was no bookshop, but there was a library. The local town didn’t have a real bookshop (the closest we had was a WHSmith, with half a dozen book shelves), but it did have an excellent library. I was 32 years old before I lived within commutable distance of a bookshop, and by then I didn’t care. I’d learned how to get any book I wanted from the library, and by that time any book I wanted to own could be bought online.

I’ve been in plenty of bookshops, of course, but I’ve never really experienced the super-helpful assistant that other people get so nostalgic about. Once, in the history section of a huge bookshop in Leeds, an assistant asked if he could help. I (frankly glad for the help) asked if they had any books on the 1971 India-Pakistan war. I got a blank look, followed by a “Sorry, I don’t know”. He didn’t even offer to check the military history section. On the other hand, if I type “1971 India-Pakistan war” into the search box at an online bookshop, it gives me a list of books. Some websites have better search engines than others, of course, but even the worst are a lot more useful than a blank look and a muttered apology.

On the other hand, while I’ve had little help from bookshop staff, I’ve benefited from plenty of help from librarians over the years. They’ve helped me find books relevant to my interests, or to help in my research. They’ve helped me get the more esoteric books from other libraries via the magic of inter-library loans. Not one has ever given me a blank look, no matter how unusual the request. My son visits the local library regularly. He has the same love of reading that his mother and I do, and I hope that as he grows older, he continues to have access to libraries and helpful librarians, just as I did. I’m much less concerned about whether or not he’ll have access to a local business that happens to sell books. If you do care about your local bookshop, though, put your money where your mouth is, and buy your books there. bookshops are commercial entities, and they can only survive if enough people spend enough money there.