For me, there are few pleasures that can compete with a half hour spent browsing in a bookstore. Canterbury and Dover, the main cities near my English home, offer a wealth of options, but for a special treat I venture to one of the quaint seaside towns on the Kentish coast. Whitstable – famous for its oysters – is home to one of my favourite bookshops, Harbour Books. It looks small, but a wealth of books are to be found within its rooms, and it has such a lovely, friendly feel.
Further afield, the book lovers’ mecca in Kent is Rochester, which was the setting for many of the works of Charles Dickens, who lived nearby. I love Baggins Book Bazaar, the largest rare and second-hand bookstore in England, and a veritable treasure trove for bibliophiles.
What’s notable about both Rochester and Whitstable high streets is that they are home to independent shops, which give the commercial centres such wonderful character (which, in turn, attracts shoppers, and visitors by the coachful). That ‘character’ refers to the traditional English high street, harking back to a time before chain stores, when shops were independent.
Technically speaking, the very first bookshop in Britain was established at Cambridge University. But the first commercial enterprise in this vein was Hatchards of Piccadilly, which has been trading since 1797. Its clientele has included Benjamin Disraeli, Oscar Wilde, Lord Byron and Her Royal Highness the Queen. From the Hatchards website:
Eight generations of customers and booksellers have come and gone since the shop first opened its doors. Many things have changed but the essence of the place remains the same and is unchangeable. Hatchards is a unique British institution.
Such a description makes me want to visit, and soon!
I wonder, though, would I feel the same way about Hatchards, and about Harbour Books and Baggins Book Bazaar and all of the independent bookstores I visit, if they were not, in fact, independent, but owned by a big book retailer?
A story in the news recently gave me cause to consider the plight of independent bookshops. The Guardian reported on controversy arising over Waterstones, the giant of British bookselling, opening three new stores cleverly disguised to look like independent bookstores. In Rye, Southwold and Harpenden, pretty little bookstores have appeared that look just as unique, inviting and independent as the likes of Harbour Books; the only clue that these stores are part of the Waterstones chain is a small handwritten note in the window of each.
The managing director of Waterstones defended the action, saying, ‘They are very small shops in towns that had independents and very much wish they still had independents but don’t.’
Some local people in the towns, however, accuse Waterstones of subterfuge, saying that had people known these were Waterstones stores, they would have tried to block their opening, to protect their high streets from chains – whose arrival in the high street is the reason, in the first place, that rents and business rates have risen to a level when independents struggle to survive.
In recent years the number of independent bookstores in the UK (and, indeed, in other countries) has been in decline, due largely to the rise of big companies like Amazon and Waterstones. This, for any sensible reader, writer, publisher or bookseller, is clearly not to be taken lightly. (For an insightful and well-argued view on the matter, take a look at ‘Why We Need Independent Bookstores More Than Ever’ at Publishing Perspectives.)
It strikes me that we need:
1. More bricks-and-mortar bookstores
2. More independent bricks-and-mortar bookstores
So how should we feel about Waterstones opening three faux-independent bookstores?
Well, on the one hand we could see the Waterstones point of view (‘They are very small shops in towns that had independents and very much wish they still had independents but don’t’) and be glad that beautiful new bookshops are opening.
On the other hand, we could decide that these bookstores would be better as true independents, and encourage the opening of more independent bookstores. How do we do that? It’s simple, so far as I can see: if we love independent bookstores and believe they must, like Hatchards, survive, then we must shop in them.
If you’re passionate about independents, take a look at the Indie Bookshop Week website at http://indiebookshopweek.org.uk/, run by @booksaremybag and @IndieBound_UK. The week will be running from 24th June to 1st July 2017, and will be a celebration of all independent bookshops. The website contains lots of information, and can help you discover new bookshops to explore.