Beyond Borders: the future of bookselling
Borders has gone belly-up, Amazon thrives, and doom-mongers are proclaiming the death of literature on the high street. But this could be the opening of a fine new chapter…
Rachel Cooke writing in The Observer, Sunday 29 November 2009
Left - Lutyens and Rubenstein bookshop in London's Notting Hill. Photograph: Richard Saker
Contrary to popular belief – or at least to those dullards who swear by Amazon – shopping for books is like shopping for clothes, or a husband: sometimes you don't know what you want until you see it, and this is where a good store comes in.
When I woke up last Friday morning I had not even heard of a book called Women Who Read Are Dangerous but later that same day I made a trip to a new shop, Lutyens & Rubinstein in west London, and there it was, sitting in the window, calling out to me at the top of its voice.
Women Who Read Are Dangerous. What a title! I don't mind admitting that I would have bought it for that alone. But once inside, I found it was my perfect book in other ways, too, containing, as it does, a feast of beautiful paintings of women reading by artists such as Felix Vallotton, Edouard Vuillard, Henri Matisse and Duncan Grant, and a politely fiery text which serves to remind one that, in the not too dim and distant past, for a woman to be seen absorbed in a book was considered at best a selfish act and at worst a subversive one.
So I grabbed it. Christmas shopping... for me! And then, of course, I was on a slippery slope. For though I am a devoted reader of book reviews, it quickly became apparent that Lutyens & Rubinstein stocked quite a few books I hadn't previously known I needed to own: a book of photographs by John Gay; a volume of spooky short stories by Kelly Link; a collection of short and sweet literary biographies by Javier Marías, a writer whose name was unfamiliar but who, according to the dust jacket of Written Lives, is admired by JM Coetzee, which is good enough for me.
When I left the shop 45 minutes later, I did so quite a few quid the lighter but also suffused with a certain kind of happiness. I felt as one does when a particularly clever and determined assistant pulls a dress from a hanger and tells you to try it on in spite of your protestations that it will never fit (and, besides, you own too many dresses already): it was as if the items in my satisfyingly heavy bag had in some mysterious way been matched with me – and this in turn made me feel not only less bad about parting with so much money but also obscurely cared for.
When they are good, aren't bookshops just about the best thing in the world? I think so.
Borders, which went into receivership this week, was not very good, which is why I cannot get too worked up about its passing. What's more, I think it is possible – fingers crossed and resting on my first edition of Love in a Cold Climate – that its disappearance might mark a watershed in British bookselling. So, as it happens, do Sarah Lutyens and Felicity Rubinstein, the literary agents who set up and own Lutyens & Rubinstein. Though the book world generally remains doom and gloom laden (lower sales, celebrity titles, controlling chains, the cutting back of serious newspaper literary pages), this could just be the moment for independent stores like theirs. Book buyers are feeling alienated by big stores like Borders (and Waterstone's), with their bored-looking staff and their piled high three-for-two offers. But, equally, using Amazon to bypass them (and, of course, to save money) only really works when you know exactly what you're after.
Amazon does not set the synapses crackling the way the sight of a pristine shelf of books does: it does not surprise you, nor does it fuel book hunger. You click on what you came for, and then you leave. This, then, is where the independent store, with its carefully edited collection, comes in. Lutyens & Rubinstein has been open just seven weeks but things are going twice as well as its owners expected. "We are a local shop," says Rubinstein. "But we are also one with deep expertise and good taste." She is smiling very broadly. So I ask if they are nervous. Sort of. "But we feel confident, too," says Lutyens. "Very confident."
There are lots of things to love about their store, among them a collection of handmade cards designed by the novelist Melissa Bank, and a scent called In The Library with top notes of leather bindings and a hint of wood polish (perhaps I will send a bottle to Margaret Hodge, the culture minister and supposed custodian of our libraries; a dash behind her ears might help to remind her of her responsibilities).
Mostly, though, it is the shop's books, and the way they are arranged that wins the day. Lutyens & Rubinstein is tiny, but it stocks 4,000 titles, which it tries to display with real wit. This month, for instance, a shelf entitled Arctic Chill features books about the north, snow and ice, while the young adult section includes books by David Mitchell and Curtis Sittenfeld as well as more predictable titles by authors who write only for that age group. Georgette Heyer, meanwhile, has a very strong presence. I won't spell out here what that means. If you know, you know. If you don't, you should stop being so stuck up, and read her, pronto.
Read the rest of this story at The Observer online.
I will always try and buy from the local bookshop and always find some gems.
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