Can bookshops save Britain’s High Streets?

Will Gompertz
Arts editor
@WillGompertzBBCon Twitter

  • Published
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Image caption,
The government wants to save the British High Street

The prime minister is so concerned about Britain's High Streets becoming homogenised or worse, slowly dying, that he is about to ask Mary "Queen of Shops" Portas to come up with a rescue plan.

What chance of the canny Mary recommending that every High Street should have an independent bookshop?

Or if she did, how many bank mangers would support such an idea? Would he, or she stare incredulously at a would-be bookshop owner and point to the facts?

Facts like: the US-backed Borders recently went bust in the UK. That the once highly successful Waterstone's chain is now in the doldrums.

That the web exists: the place where punters can go and buy a discounted bestseller or an arcane title with one click of their mouse.

Bright future?

And that the big supermarkets have now moved in on the game to soak up much of the spare book-buying capacity consumers might have.

The bank manager would also point out that physical books are old fashioned. That e-books are the future and you don't need a shop to sell those.

And with those points made he or she would make their final point, which would be towards the door. Another dreamer dispatched.

If I were the bank manager I'd hand over the money (after appropriate due diligence of course).

It might seem counter-intuitive, but I reckon there is a future for the Britain's independent booksellers, it might not be brilliantly bright, but it's certainly not dull.

Last night the Bookseller - the trade magazine for the UK's publishing industry - has its annual awards bash.

'Unsung heroes'

There were awards for the Publisher of The Year (Quercus, publishers of Stieg Larsson's books), Agent of The Year (a good looking chap with swept back hair) and Editor of the Year (Clara Farmer, Chatto & Windus for Hare with the Amber Eyes among others).

But the awards for which the room gave the loudest and longest applause were for the nation's booksellers.

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Booksellers might need to think differently about how they sell their wares

Whether it was an individual from a shop such as Young Bookseller of The Year Award (a nice young man in a kilt called Micha Solona) or a manager of a shop (Zool Verjee manager of Blackwell's Oxford), these were the individuals for whom the elite of British publishing cheered on and off the stage.

And that's because booksellers are seen to be the unsung heroes of the publishing industry.

It is their enthusiasm, knowledge and ability to connect with the buying public that keeps everybody else involved in business.

And the harder it has become to sell books, the harder the people who are employed (for not a lot) in bookshops across the country have worked.

They are curators as much as shopkeepers; some of whom present books with the sort of creativity that stands comparison with the author's books they are selling.

And according to the publishing insider I was sitting next to last night, few compare to the independent bookshops for innovation and imagination.

Joanna Trollope stepped forward to announce the winner of Independent Bookshop of The Year, making the point "indies" only account for 7% of the British bookselling market.

The award went to Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath. I have heard a great deal about this bookshop and will be going to it soon for a piece on the future of publishing for the Today programme.

From what I understand it is worth a visit whether or not you want a book (apparently you will not leave without one). There are talks, shows, suggestions and conversation.

I haven't seen Mr B's balance sheet, but I am told it is a profitable venture. Perhaps Mary Portas should take a trip to Bath and check it out. She could take a few bank managers with her.