Good news from the high street. We don’t often read those words, least of all courtesy of the internet. The UK opening on Monday of the Bookshop website is a blood transfusion for independent bookshops and one from which all retailers can learn. The website is a mail-order circumvention of Amazon, selling books under the flags of more than 130 independent booksellers. Buyers order their book at a slightly discounted price after “entering” their chosen front door on the site and the shop duly receives the 30% bookseller’s margin.
The US version of Bookshop was launched in January by Andy Hunter, the co-founder of Literary Hub. It has 900 shops signed up and has tripled sales each month since then. It has given an estimated $7.5m already this year to its bookseller members. Buyers clearly forego the 30% or so Amazon discount but they know that the price is what they would pay in a real store.
The death of the bookshop has been forecast for generations. Apocalypse loomed as a result of public libraries, paperbacks, WH Smith, Amazon, ebooks, business rates and high street decline. Yet the news is good. Book sales are at an all-time high. Last year they were up 20% from five years previously, with only modern fiction down. More significantly, last year the number of independent bookshops actually rose for the third year running. Coronavirus is a menace, but the publisher Bloomsbury had predicted it would mean sales by falling 75%, whereas by July they had risen 9%. Books and bookshops are clearly retail therapy. Booksellers may be like farmers and publicans and much given to moaning, but they refuse to die.
The message is that high streets will not beat digital and must join it. Online and doorstep service can deliver a product but not the experience of choosing it. High streets are about walking, meeting, talking, drinking and being entertained. One of my bookseller acquaintances has broadened into author events, becoming a local impresario who sells books on the side. Others have diversified into everything from toys and cookery classes to book clubs and coffee.
The clear message of Bookshop is that the pleasure of buying a book is not wholly satisfied by a tick in a box and a van at the door. It embraces a ritual, a visit to a temple of literature, an inhaling of bookishness, a survey of titles, a picking up, a handling, a browsing, a pausing to ponder, a chat with an assistant. A bookshop is part church, part club. People still want their books “live”.
High streets are facing undoubted disaster, exacerbated by the government’s savage decision to close “non-essential” shops. This will decimate the retail economy. Bookshop shows how at least some shops can make peace with the digital revolution. Other retailers should take note.