There we were, in Totnes, a town in the west of England that we had not been to before. My wife and I commented to each other how pleasant it was to see a high street with mainly independent shops, rather than with branches of large multi-national chains. Pleasant though it was, most of the shops were not, I admit, of much interest to me: clothes shops generally leave me indifferent (I am not the world’s best-dressed person); watches and jewellery I tend to find a bit dull; and the specialist food and wine shops are really not for the likes of me, as anything I am drawn to is more than likely to be disapproved of by my doctor. But no matter. It was pleasant just walking up that high street, and soaking up its multi-national-free ambience.
Then it appeared: a bookshop, and an independent bookshop at that. Not that I disapprove of chains. I remember when Waterstones and Dillons (the latter now taken over by the former) first appeared on our high streets some thirty or so years ago: they gave us book-browsers far more to browse through than we had ever enjoyed before. And even now, my local branch of Waterstones is staffed by friendly and enthusiastic people, who are very fast and efficient in getting for me any title they happen not to have in stock. So no, I am not complaining. But an independent bookshop is different. And I think what makes it different is the reason any independent shop is different from a branch of a chain: there is an individuality about what they stock, what they display.
Now, I do not know how these things work, but most branches of Waterstones, in terms of the titles and the kinds of book on display, are fairly identikit: see one branch, and you’ve seen them all. Once again, I am not complaining: they have obviously decided that is the best way to run their business, and best of luck to them. But one can’t help noticing that the stocks in independent bookshops are different. Obviously, given limited space, no bookshop, not even the largest, could hope to stock every book; and independent bookshops, given that they tend generally to be on the smaller side, have no choice but to be discriminating about which titles, and which kind of books, they want to display. And the choices each one makes is refreshingly different: they are, inevitably, indicative of the owners’ tastes and values, and of how they feel the local book-buying community is best served.
Of course, there could, and, no doubt, do exist bookshops where the focus is on books that one may find, for whatever reason, objectionable or unsavoury. In such cases, the obvious thing to do is to walk out. But in general, it is precisely the individual nature of each independent bookshop that makes them so delightful. It is that chance of coming across a book one had not seen before, or had not known about, or had been looking for in vain, that makes the browsing so pleasurable. When I am finally invited to Desert Island Discs (and why the BBC hasn’t yet invited me, I cannot imagine), and am asked what luxury I would like, I would, as John Arlott had done, ask for a good bookshop. Or, better still, a few good bookshops.
That shop in Totnes did not disappoint. True, it was very small, but the stock we found was refreshingly different from that we would normally encounter in a branch of Waterstones. My wife headed immediately – as she generally does – to the history section, and didn’t take too long to find a few titles she wanted. As for me, I found Winter Notes on Summer Impressions – Dostoyevsky’s account of his travels in Europe. Despite the fame of the writer, this is a fairly specialised title, and not one I’d expect to find even in the larger branches of chain bookshops. That I found it in a small independent bookshop in Totnes is remarkable, and really does fill me with delight.
Sadly, apart from a specialist children’s bookshop in Richmond, there aren’t too many independent bookshops near where I live. A friend of mine runs an independent bookshop in Kenilworth (the Tree House Bookshop, that I have no hesitation in plugging here on this blog), and my only complaint is that it is not within easy travelling distance of where I am. But every time I visit Lancashire (which I do fairly frequently for family reasons), I find myself in Halewoods in Preston (who appear not to have a website), or in that lovely little bookshop in Clitheroe. Like that shop we found in Totnes, these shops are run by people who obviously care about books, and, despite the limited shelf space, take care over the titles they stock. And every time I step into one of these shops, I feel at home: I feel almost guilty walking out without having made a purchase! And when I have a weekend to myself, I can think of nothing better than to head out to Hay-on-Wye, and spend a day or two browsing at my leisure through its many bookshops.
But it is invidious to single out a few shops when there are still so many. And I cannot help wondering how much longer I’ll be able to enjoy visiting these independent bookshops, given both the current economic and cultural climates. There was an independent bookshop in the nearby town of Chertsey that was forced to close down a few years ago. And even in Hay-on-Wye, a town internationally renowned for its many bookshops, the number of shops has declined dramatically over the years, and many owners I have chatted to have left me in no doubt that running these shops is, frankly, an uphill struggle. It is tremendously sad. If these shops do some day disappear, we will be left more impoverished than I think we realise. The people who run these shops, despite all the difficulties, do so because they love books, and they deserve our most sincere respect and gratitude. I’d be more than happy to raise a glass or two to them. And would, indeed, do so, if only my doctor approved…
But while they are still here, let us celebrate them. Browsing through these shops, and then walking up to the cash desk with a few purchases, are amongst the greatest delights of life. Long may we continue to do so, and long may these shops thrive, whatever the odds!