Thursday, April 22, 2010

Britain's best independent bookshops
One has a railway running along its shelves, another displays its wares in a Victorian bath. Small bookshops aren't dead, they're thriving, and we've hunted down the best.
 By Nina Caplan
Published: The Telegraph, 20 Apr 2010

Left -  Barter Books in Alnwick, Northumberland, one of Britain's favourite bookshops  Photo: John Walsom

Oh business – how can people?’ wailed Nancy Mitford while attempting to discuss her share of Mayfair bookshop Heywood Hill in 1948; amazingly, it’s still there, even though the hilarious letters between Mitford and Hill make it clear that when it came to business, these people couldn’t, really.

Any bookseller who requires his own slang term (to couch) for ‘to place in a pile and leave until dust settles or emergency strikes’ was probably never going to die rich.

Then again, if you want business acuity in a bookshop, go to the relevant shelf: it has rarely been found behind the counter. The Net Book Agreement, which precluded discounts until the Nineties, and the absence of any real competition before the internet, meant that until recently practically anyone could make a living (but not a fortune) selling books.

George Orwell, writing in 1936, reckoned that since the corporates would never be able to squeeze independent booksellers the way they had the grocer or the milkman, ‘it is a humane trade which is not capable of being vulgarised beyond a certain point’.

He was wrong about big business – these days, some bookshops are decidedly more equal than others – but while 102 (nearly 10 per cent of the total) closed in 2009, according to the Booksellers Association, there are still independents dotted all over the country, usually in villages and market towns where they help reinforce a sense of community. Which is odd when you consider that reading is one of the most solitary pursuits around

Small bookshops, however, are gregarious: when I set out to find those that were doing well and how they were managing to hold back the tide of so-called progress, I encountered roaring fires, free coffee and regulars who were greeted by name and were happy to talk, especially about books.

I was there in search of personalities – the booksellers, of course, but also the shops themselves, which despite their similarities had, like dogs are said to, come to resemble their owners. No small business is having an easy time at the moment, although the internet actually gives at least as much as it takes away: most of the people I spoke to sell online, find books for customers that way and even order through Amazon for people who don’t want to do so themselves.

In fact, it is publishers who are really causing the small shops trouble by undercutting them. Apparently they don’t see how cannibalistic this is: kill the little businesses and they’ll be entirely at Amazon’s mercy.

Still, for the moment, the death of the independent bookshop has been greatly exaggerated, so I have selected these rather as one chooses books in a good shop: by running my finger along the possibilities, stopping when something catches my fancy and pulling out those that look really enticing for closer examination.

And, as with good fiction, I have been rewarded with a range of unforgettable characters, overcoming great obstacles and devoting their considerable powers of invention to overseeing bookshops that have as little in common with a blank-faced chain outlet as a newsletter does with a novel.

Read The Telegraph's selection of best independent bookshops here.

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