Cultures Literature

In Praise of Bookshops: Why The Online Shopping Experience Cannot Compete

I had almost forgotten just how very much I missed bookshops. I had become used to the speedy click on Amazon and the Christmas-like anticipation of the parcels being delivered to the doorstep a few days later – something that had helped to combat the lockdown ennui. But as bookshops begin to open again, I find I am now in danger of being tempted to stick with the lazy and expedient habit of typing ‘Amazon’ into my search box.

There have long been signs that Amazon is a ruthless monolith in the book trade. Even before the pandemic accelerated Amazon’s growth, the delivery company accounted for 50% of total book sales in the UK in 2019, compared with 37% in 2015. Amazon’s success story leaves the future of independent local retail bookshops looking worryingly shaky. Although the socially conscious Bookshop.org., which launched in November 2020, provides local bookshops with a virtual marketing platform to rival Amazon’s, I can’t help but feel that the best show of support comes from visiting them in person.

Unable to shake this feeling, I was driven out of the house to visit the bookshops again. For a book lover, nothing compares to the sheer joy of browsing real bookshelves filled with real books. The virtual equivalent does not begin to compare. How could I forget the feeling of attraction – I was like a bee to a honeypot – of a colourful shopfront window lined with enticing books? Or the instinct to scour the space to find my favourite sections (I have secret soft spots for fantasy fiction and coffee-table fashion books) until I eventually pick out a promising looking book? How could I have forgotten the sheer pleasure of flicking through a book’s pages before making my way to the counter (with many digressions as my beady eye seeks out other tempting books), until finally leaving triumphantly with a heavy hoard of books and a satisfyingly diminished bank account? Sometimes I sneakily start reading a book whilst I am in the shop (I am not the only one!) and eavesdrop on the bookish conversations of the people around me.

What I love about bookshops is that none of them can ever be identical in the sense of character they evoke. I head to any Waterstones branch when I wish to be lost in a labyrinth of floor levels that are filled with safely classified editions. Another absolute favourite bookshop of mine has to be Blackwell’s, with its academic classiness and sophisticated feel. Scaling down in size, the cluster of bookshops on the Charing Cross Road in London never fails to impress with its collection of precious antique books tucked away down rickety old staircases. The experience offered by quirky booksellers is irreplaceable. On a spontaneous ramble you might meet their invariably cool and indie staff, or discover some little known work you had never heard of that will change your life.   

I struggle to choose a ‘favourite’ place because of the eclectic mix of bookshops and the aspect of spontaneity that comes with book shopping! It is this diversity of experience that I perhaps value most and which, in my humble opinion, Amazon and other online retailers will never be able to replicate.  Regardless of whether it is the ethical points against large online retailers, or the sheer compulsive pleasure of an independent bookshop that entices one through its doors, shopping in person has true value. It may be too idealistic to suggest that we stop using online delivery sites completely. I know that I will end up occasionally resorting to Amazon or Bookshop.org to get hold of books quickly for my degree. But I hope that a certain acceptance of online delivery platforms doesn’t mean forgetting the magical experience of shopping in real bookshops. If we don’t use them, we will lose them forever and we will be a lesser society for it.