No, not the town in Berkshire where Colin lives; I mean the activity that involves the printed word.
So yeah… I love reading but, is the reading of books doomed?
On Monday lunchtime I visited a large outlet of a very well known chain of booksellers.
The store was immaculately laid out but prominently were the displays: offers, offers, offers, offers. Two for one, three for two, six for four.
Add to these displays the various reduced price ‘discount’ bins and it would seem that the market for the printed word isn’t exactly buoyant.
Except perhaps in our house, but that is a different – and altogether more entertaining story.
Nick Hornby(1) recently wrote a feature on the Penguin website arguing that the digital development of the printed word – eBook readers and so on – will never replace books.
I concur, although I do remember people saying years ago that vinyl would never be replaced – but where are the sales of records on vinyl now?
However I think Nick Hornby is right because a digital book still has to be held, just like a real book. And unlike a real book you will never own – just rent – a digital book.
These points are the key differences between books/eBooks and vinyl/digital media (though some might argue that with DRM the buyer of music still never completely owns the records) ; that eBooks are ‘rented’, hard copy books are owned and both types of the media have to be held in an identical manner.
However the downward trend of book sales is unarguable and, in a way, underlined by the proliferation of offers and discounts – for if book sales were bullish the imprints and vendors wouldn’t need to rely so heavily on discounted lines to shift stock, would they?
But what does puzzle me is that second-hand bookshops haven’t risen to become the literary equivalent of the ‘charity shop’, which can be found on almost every UK street corner.
Yes, there are significant ‘used’ outlets around the country.
The Book Barn (for example), which once used to occupy an enormous (formerly top secret Defence installation) single site to the north of the Somerset city of Wells, has now expanded to occupy four aircraft hanger-sized warehouses in various parts of the UK.
And although I’ve visited The Book Barn a few times – and come away with armfuls of books each time – but I find The Book Barn too large.
OK, I can meander along and have a pretty ropey plastic cup of plastic coffee made with plastic milk and browse the dusty dust jackets of hardbacks, softbacks and even – dare I say it – boxes of vinyl,
But where, I want to know, is my local second-hand bookstore?
Where is my book-filled place of foot-tapping but unobtrusive music?
A place where I can go and browse sections – rather than square miles – of neatly categorised printed work?
A kind of bookish ‘Championship Vinyl’?
See what I did there?
I suppose the commercial factor – the financial calculation of markup – where the margin between ‘buying-in’ and ‘selling-out’ needs to support the business expenditure: premises, heat, light and staff costs – is the main inhibition in the growth of the used book market.
Hay-on-Wye, for example, is a small town on the Welsh border where the local economy is supported by books. Used books are not the main industry in Hay, but it’s one of them.
But if you look at Hay-on-Wye you’ll see that there is hardly any competition for the commercial premises which, in turn, must be a significant factor in governing the affordability of market rents in the town.
My home town though, Bromsgrove, has a significant number of charity shops – clothing charity shops – but no second-hand bookstores.
Commercial property in Bromsgrove must be affordable at the moment, there are a number of empty shops and they’ve been empty for some time; are not getting reoccupied.
The question has to be what is the weak spot in the used book market business case?
I think the answer is that it is the same weak spot that is blighting the new bookstores.
Or the lack of them.
But would people more readily patronise a used bookstore in these financially squeezed times, than they would a new bookstore?
Setting aside mundane practicalities like stock selection and ambience, it’s an interesting question.
At least it is to me, here, now.
Who knows if it will be tomorrow.
But tomorrow I might not want to visit a second hand bookstore.
(1) I learnt an interesting Hornby-related fact recently: the music budget for the film adaptation of High Fidelity was bigger than the entire film budget for the film adaptation of Fever Pitch.
Boggling fact that, eh?