Wednesday, 11 January 2012

What'll happen to all the librarians and bookshop assistants?

I strolled into our local Waterstone’s yesterday, more out of habit than anything else, and realised I hadn’t been in a bookstore (apart from our local Oxfam shop, which is great for poetry and art books) for at least three months. Since joining a book group 15 months ago, I’ve done most of my book shopping online. This Christmas I got two books as presents, both ordered from Amazon. And I’ve now got a Kindle, which (and I realise what a cliché I am) I already love. And when I attended our last book club meeting on Monday, four of the other attendees had also just got themselves kindled up.

When I realised that Waterstone’s had ceased offering its standard “threefer” deal, I left (which was a stange thing to do, because choosing the third – free -  book always got me all of a dither: choosing the first two paid-for items was never a problem). I doubt I shall be returning often. It’s a big shop, but the offering is so standard, you rarely come across anything quirky or unexpected; I hate the music playing in the background; customers are forever holding conversations on their mobile phones; and, speaking of barbaric behaviour, my visits often seemed to coincide with chucking out time at the local state-run youth non-correctional facility (i.e. comprehensive school), and there’s nothing quite as maddening as trying to read while teenagers are shrieking at each other in innit-speak around the bus stop just outside the shop.

Later, prompted by a Telegraph blog post, I signed up for a service called Readability, which parses online articles into an eBook-friendly format and downloaded a bunch of recent items from US publications. One of them was “The End of Borders and the Future of Books” by Ben Austen. Thanks to the Borders chain closing in the US, Nashville (like a lot of other American cities, I suspect) now doesn’t have a dedicated bookstore within a 22-mile radius. When the Oxford Street Borders closed a couple of years back, I remember feeling upset, simply because I’ve always loved truffling around in bookshops for hours on end, and Borders’ selection, spread over four floors, was enormous (interestingly, that was the company’s main selling point, but, not having done the relevant research, they hadn’t realised that most customers simply couldn’t give two hoots about range). But I’m not sure I’ll much care when – as will inevitably happen – charity shops become the only place to buy books in Chiswick: in fact, I prefer second hand bookshops.

Let’s face it, for my generation, this is a Golden Age for accessing the written word. We grew up with books, and most of us have far too many of them already (all of our book club Kindle owners cited lack of space as the spur to getting one). Our literary tastes and interests are pretty much set, so we have a rough idea what we want to buy, and online stores mean you don’t have to settle for second best.  If we want hard copies, we can use Amazon. If we’re not sure, we can download them to Kindle. When it comes to books and delivery methods, we are spoiled rotten for choice.


As for real, live books, as Ben Austen suggests, I imagine there’ll be a move to smaller shops specialising in books that work better as physical objects than as digital texts – large picture books, snippet books for the toilet, those books people don’t read which exist solely to be given as presents, status books designed purely for display purposes, and those designed for the sort of nostalgist who buys vinyl LPs. As for public libraries, they’ll follow bookshops online.

What will happen to the quiet, educated types who currently find refuge in libraries and bookshops? And, given the slow death of the High Street, who will occupy all those Waterstone’s stores? Especially if, as one sincerely hopes, there are far fewer public sector jobs available. I have no idea – but I feel genuinely sorry that they’ll have lost their safe havens. (Speaking of which, I wonder what’s happened to all the staff who used to work in music stores.)

Don’t get me wrong – I’m delighted to have grown up in the era where the word “book” still meant a physical artefact. But I’m also thrilled that my retirement – when I should have as much time as I want to read – will coincide with an era when the last thing anyone will have to worry about if getting hold of a book. 


  1. Telegraph: “Waterstone's has ditched the apostrophe before its final letter in order to make its spelling easier in the digital age, the company has said.” Never let it be said that the company doesn't understand the gravity of the danger it faces.

  2. I am willing to bet you 10/- of my State Pension that within six months your beloved Kindle will be gathering dust in a drawer and you will have embraced the status quo ante. I know stuff.

  3. Mr Moss, this is the company that brilliantly redesigned its logo by making all the letters lower case. This meant that they lost the mentall image most of us have of Waterstone's - a dinstinctive upper-case "W". I bet some marketing numbnuts got paid a fortune for that. Now, they're gone back to an upper-case "w". No doubt some other numbnuts got paid a fortune for coming up with that recommendation as well. Why, I wonder, does spelling need to be "easier" in the digital age? Personally, I'm keeping the apostrophe cos im not allitritt.

  4. You will lose that bet, OAP, so you might as well send me the 10/- in the form of a postal order right away and just cut down on heating or substitute Kennomeat for your evening meals at weekends, or something. I am young and vibrant and ever so "with-it" and not an old square like you, daddio.