Feature: How To Save Independent Bookshops

According to writer Alan Bennett, we should “boycott” large book chains and supermarkets in favour of the small independent bookshop. 

At The Times Literature Festival in October, Alan Bennett received an award for his latest published work, ‘Untold Stories’. During his acceptance speech, Alan pleaded to his audience: “I hope if you buy a copy of this book you buy it, if you can, from an independent bookseller.”

Independent bookshops compete with the larger stores all year, but as the festive season approaches, stores such as Waterstones, Dillons and WHSmith pose even more of a threat. Huge Christmas discounts and special offers leave the independents unable to compete. 

Bennett continued: “I am not trying to do Waterstones down, but all the big chains heavily discount this book, the worst being Amazon. This will drive independent booksellers out of business.”

In these larger stores, discounts of up to 50% are currently offered, and many book covers are littered with labels advertising discounts, three for two offers, and books signed by the author.

Widespread use of the internet is also having a huge impact. Books can be purchased with the click of a button and, sites such as Amazon not only offer discounts and a wide variety of choice, but the items can be delivered to your door the very next day. 

But, these chains and internet sites may have a battle of their own.  

Supermarkets have moved into bookselling, and offer bestsellers even cheaper than Amazon and Waterstones. In the run up to Christmas many bestsellers start at £3.99, and JK Rowling’s latest ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’ is on sale for £5.24 in Tesco. Many also offer free delivery on books ordered via their website.     

Michael Berwick from Manchester, feels that independent booksellers need to adapt to their competition: “If the independent seller insists on selling the same as the chain stores, but at premium prices, then they cannot blame anybody when they go out of business,” he argues.

Peter Howis, owner of small independent bookshop ‘Bookworm’ in Rawtenstall, Lancashire, has already taken this argument into consideration: “We don’t sell the same books as the supermarkets, there are plenty of other books around for us to sell,” he said.

Supermarkets stock the best of the bestsellers and sell them at knock-down prices. A small shop such as Bookworm which is located only yards away from a large superstore, is incapable of competing.

Mr Howis adds: “We just don’t sell them, don’t even keep them in stock, we have to leave that to the supermarkets. Even if we matched the price, which we did one year, it does not change people’s habits, they would still go to the shops they think are the cheapest. We haven’t bothered stocking bestsellers such as Harry Potter for the last three years.” 

But why do we need to save the independent bookshop? Why pay more for a book if we have the opportunity to pay half the price?

Large chains, internet sites and supermarkets generally base their strategies to provide a return for their investors and shareholders. HMV Group plc now wholly own Waterstones and Dillons, and are currently attempting a takeover of Ottaker’s bookstore chain. Whilst the Monopolies and Mergers Commission may look at this venture, it will ultimately be another nail in the independent's coffin as this would mean that they alone would control almost a quarter of the book trade, and half the high street bookshops.

Independents seek to profit through customer care, dealing with enquiries, offering recommendations and ensuring customers will return to the shop.  

Mr Howis is proud of the efficient and friendly service which he offers: “We are only a small shop with not much floor space, but if we do not stock a book which a customer wants then I can order it and usually have it in the shop for collection the next day.”

If we allow large chains, not only in the bookselling industry but across all sectors of retail, to dominate the market then shopping centres will lose their uniqueness and economic diversity. 

In 2004 the New Economics Foundation (NEF) published a document known as the ‘Clone Town Survey’. Is your town a home-town or a clone-town? Clone-towns are identified as those with an array of national chains, making a generic shopping centre.

If customers do not heed Alan Bennett and continue to purchase books from large chains and supermarkets, it will result in their retail domination across Britain. Towns and cities will become models of each other with the same shop fronts, and window displays from Edinburgh to London and the individual character of cities and towns will be lost.