Monday, January 16, 2006

On books

CPMarie, gets some serious ranting in on the topic of "why books" (as in countering the notion that books are a dying format soon to be replaced by e-something or other). Another post comments on the piece by Susan Hill from the Guardian on Saturday, which had this to say on bookshops that are under-stocked or who chose to 'de-stock'.
The window is still alright, but inside I doubt if there are a quarter of the books there used to be, and you can't really browse because they are almost all turned face forwards. A quick glance around and you've seen the lot. It's exactly like a remainder bookstore. According to the proprietors, "People don't buy books that are shelved spine-out, only if they can see the covers, face-on." Not any book-buying people I know.
On Saturday I dragged my ass out of the house for the first time in 4 days. I felt like hell, but I needed some air. We went to Buythebook in West Bridgford [NB their site appears to have been hi-jacked or vamooshed but either way it has now vanished]. We bought two books. I didn't feel inspired to buy any more. Usually I have to tear myself from buying more than two: two is like a minimum purchase for me. In an earlier lifetime (and if the car hadn't been parked at the tram and ride half the city away) I may also have forked the marvellously bargainous £10 for two hefty volumes on Women Artists at £5 each. But then I thought (a) they're not that great - good but no more essential than others on my shelves already (b) they're in my uni library and several others I have been to (c) they are gonna be darn heavy to even transport back to the car let alone lug around in the rain. So I left them.

When I got home I read the Susan Hill piece and TOTALLY recognised what it said. BTB felt like a remainder store - and not an especially thrilling one. Lots and lots of the shelf space was given to face-out books. It felt very open, as if it needed all the space to squeeze everything in but had probably less stock than the nearby Oxfam books store which has around 1/4 of the space. Too much was mainstream stuff (two display cases on cookery, mostly face out); and the dreaded combined section for religion, newage, occult blah-di-blah. It had the potential to be inspiring - quirky bits like a complete history of the English civil war in 7 paperback volumes, and the children's section looked like it had some appeal - but overall I left feeling a bit flat. That is NOT how a bookshop should, or usually does, make me feel. I want to feel like I could keep spending forever, spoilt to choose. Damn it; if even remainder stores can sometimes make me feel that way, surely a decent indie store should be able to do that!? And before someone says something: the jazz. It sounded great. I may go back just to listen to that.


HolyhosesRob said...

I'm deeply ashamed to say that whereas I used to live in bookshops, I've become very disenchanted with them, and now find all my books on-line.

Lest you think this is a paltry amount, so far in 2006 I have bought 6 second-hand books (from 2 different sellers on, and 4 new books from Amazon. There are yet two more on my plan-to-buy list, which are waiting till my Amazon creditcard rewards me with another £15 voucher (soon, my precious).

3 of the second hand books came from the States (they're all Kate Wilhelms I haven't read yet). One was formerly in a Jacksonville, Fla, public library, and the other two come from The OC public library. All cost less than a dollar each, plus postage (9 dollars).

These are all by a writer I have known and loved for 25 years, and yet I can safely say that I have never seen a single one of her books - new - in a bookshop in this country.

The 4 new books are by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, a writer I discovered through Asimov's magazine, and yet a name I have never seen on the shelves of a UK bookshop. The SF section in most bookshops consists of different editions of Lord of the Rings, Star Trek nonvelisations, and Terry Pratchett. The keen reader is unlikely to ever discover anything new from browsing a bookshop's shelves.

Marie said...

Any decent independent bookseller should be able to order the books you want in for you, including from the US. The advantage of this is that they get to have a look at the books when they come out of the box. And then if they like what they see they might order more for the shop. Educate your booksellers and they will get better!

cpmatthew said...

I wrote to Susan Hill as soon as I saw her article and here is her reply:

Hurray.. the first one not to castigate me, pour a bucket of water on me, de da de da.. mainly because a. they haven`t actually read what I have said and b. they read the bit in invisible ink which said'Chain bookstores are wonderful, Waterstone`s are heaven.'
I`m delighted you agree.. there IS a real niche for small independents... and what no one has thought about is that it was not Waterstones or WHS but Ottakars who did for many many small indies by opening opposite them in market towns..
I certainly will come and see you... where abouts are you ? SE! to me means National Theatre area ?
Good Luck... my own tiny publishing company of course loves small indies... new website going up soon..
Susan H

HolyhosesRob said...

Goof point Marie, but I suspect "decent independent booksellers" are about as common as "friendly and helpful guitar shops". I know Simon Holyhoses has had all kinds of problems with ordering books. I can't believe any of the drones I've dealt with in the past even took a remote interest in what I was ordering or asking about.

Anyway, you just feel like a freak, forever asking about writers they've never heard of, like a Little Britain sketch waiting to happen.

Then there's the access problem. We've got a rubbish WH Smiths in Buckingham, but that's it. Over at MK there's Ottakar's and Waterstones, and I'm afraid it makes no economic sense to pay for a train ticket to London and buy books, when I can get them more easily on-line, and spend the train fare on more books.

I'd be interested to know, vis a vis Susan Hill's suggestion that small bookshops shouldn't bother with the best sellers, what kind of pressure the publisher's reps put on these shops.

I can imagine the scenario. You want to buy one, but they'll only sell a box of 20. Or, if you're not buying their promo items, they can't be bothered with you. Or you need to spend £50,000 at a time in order to get competitive pricing. Or they always send you the damaged stuff, so you're always having to send it back.

HolyhosesRob said...

Good point, as well as goof point.

SimonHolyHoses said...

I'm like Rob. I buy most of mine online now.

When I lived in London I loved the bookshops. I've even been known to go to Oxford and Cambridge for a day just to "do" the bookshops. I LOVE real books.

But in Nottingham (with the possible exception of the bookshops on Campus) I very rarely find anything useful in the shops.

There just isn't any serendipity in it.

Usually I know what I want to buy and they don't have it. I don't blame them as a lot of the titles might sit on the shelves forever apart from me.

I can't count how many times I've been told by the likes of Waterstones that a book is out of print or unavailable, only to find, at some point down the line that they lied.

On a final note: that Oxfam shop in West Bridgford! I tracked down a copy of Joseph Wright's Gothic grammar in there. I jest you not but I'd been after that for near on 15 years. That was truly a special moment.

However... Get rid of coffee shops in bookshops! Please!

And electronic books are farts from the very devil's arse itself so far as I'm concerned. Useless.

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Not in order:
Simon, I largely agree with you but will point out that since the Uni went all upscalee stylee the concept of "bookshops" (plural) on campus has gone. Its blackwells - just the one - as part of the main portland extension they did a couple of years ago. It sells stationary, and cards and CDS and... oh yeah, books. Its okay, but there's scarcely a bundle of stuff for most subjects although obviously the sciencey stuff gets big loads of shelf space and you can get last years core text book at reduced price second hand (if they havent changed it to a new edition this year). And I love the West Bridgford Oxfam bookshop. It's just right. And we too have done the visits to Ox and Cam solely for book buying. Hay is more hit and miss, but there too we have travelled and returned with bags (literally bootloads) of books on our return.

marie: ordering from the states fills me with glee as so many of the books I really want are US editions (many times over the years have we purchased the US copy in preference to the UK one: something stylistically is sometimes better for some reason...hmmm lots of 'some' there: need to be more definite).

CPMatthew: great that Susan Hill liked your comment and I certainly think she was saying the right thing. SMALL indie is where it is at.

Rob: your comments about buying online are well valid although I do recognise that I am a bit of a dolt for being up on the best online providers. Know what you mean about guitar shops though...

SimonHolyHoses said...

Ah! You see I haven't been on campus for books for a couple of years now. Used to be good for philosophy and languages.

My wife still goes for the odd medical text book.

It's a shame they've improved it.

Lisa Rullsenberg said...



Skuds said...

I went into C&P today. Very nice. I didn't have time for a proper browse what with it being my first day back at work and everything.

One thing to remember when knocking Waterstones and Ottakars - make sure you blame the company and not the staff, most of whom would love to work in a small bookshop if they hadn't been hounded out of existence.

My sister works in one up North. Like many of her colleagues she has a degree in Eng Lit and loves books. In the past I have been able to order books from her by asking her to (for example) just send me the best general history of the Vietnam war and then trust her judgement.

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Skuds: excellent point and one well proven in Nottm where frankly they couldn't all GET jobs in bookshops. I used to know some excellent staff at the Dillons in Bham many years ago who were really smartly knowledgeable about all manner of books. I don't think staff are the main topic under debate here: they can be good or bad the same as anywhere. The problem is what to do to preserve small indie bookshops where we can. The difficulty is that staff can get inadvertantly criticised in the crash of debate (that isn't to forgive some appalling recruitment on the part of places: they're aiming for the best and can get them, just not always).

Related note: I went to Page45 again this weekend and it was as ever a JOYFUL experience. Wise staff prepared to compliment, advise and inform you about what is available and what you pick up: the "have you seen X? if you like this you may like that" [style, theme, artist, writer, publisher..] and "oh you're in for a treat with Y" and "this is great one from Z - they're... [cue biog, history, info on obscurity/popularity etc]... just a joy to go into and always well-stocked.