How bookshops can save the world

I was waiting in teen-taxi last night and it was too dark to read so I flicked through the radio stations looking for a distraction, and stumbled across James Daunt spouting forth about bookshops and the physical book. I found myself agreeing with most of what he said.  I started scribbling down words and phrases and getting goosebumps when I realised the truth of what he had to say and how this might connect with my own thoughts about bookshops, libraries, book festivals and reading.

Daunt talked about how chain bookselling had lost its way, been driven by the cheque book and had crushed individuality for the sake of profit. In the long run, he said, this is what had actually driven their customers away. He thought it was time to  restore individuality and engage with local communities. While I didn’t agree with his thoughts on children’s reading, I found points of commonality in what he said: about how some niche bookshops can be intimidating and how supermarkets as bookshops provided a good introduction to books for those people who might never otherwise enter a bookshop.

There’s no denying the appeal of digital, but there’s no human connection involved in one-click book-buying. Because there’s also no denying that people like talking about books, sharing books and meeting authors. Book Festivals and author events are hugely popular for more than just literary bookish folk. So I wondered, what if there was a way to combine selling and reading? What if you could open a space within supermarkets and bookshops and libraries (which are now so much more than simply a place for books) as reading rooms? A space that was open to all to enjoy a book and pass on good reads, somewhere to share the pleasure of reading? And by all I mean EVERYONE, even those who enjoy celebrity hardbacks and trashy novels and for whom kindle means literally to start a fire.

Combine Daunt’s talk with the appalling unemployment statistics and it’s worth exploring how bookshops, libraries and supermarkets can combine somehow to restore a sense of community. Perhaps they could provide commercially-sponsored places where people can test and try books, buy books, read and share stories and even, perhaps, create their own stories.

By this I don’t mean a return to eighteenth-century subscription libraries or circulating libraries where access to books was according to class, wealth and gender, but something more accessible, which will benefit booksellers and readers and also their communities.

I haven’t worked out how this can be done or who might do it or fund it and I know I’m just thinking aloud and probably annoying half the really good, community-based independent bookshops who do cater to all their readers. But I’m sure even they would admit they’d enjoy a return to a time when bookshops were busier and trade was stronger.

Anyway, enough ‘thinking’ – have a listen to JD.

I’ve put  link to the podcast below and in case this doesn’t work I’ve added a link to the BBC4 Four Thought website where you can scroll down and find the James Daunt Podcast.

Intro – “Recorded in front of an audience at the RSA in London, speakers take to the stage to air their latest thinking on the trends, ideas, interests and passions that affect our culture and society.”

James Daunt issues a ringing defence of printed books, and argues that libraries and local bookshops – the ‘purveyors of the written word’ – are vital social and cultural spaces. Brought in to turn around the Waterstone’s chain of bookshops, he argues that book chains should continue to play a vital role in introducing readers to books, but will only succeed if they re-connect with their communities.

James Daunt Podcast on Bookshops

BBC Radio 4 – Four Thought Website – scroll down to ‘James Daunt’ and play.



PS – I’m sorry about these unruly ads – they’re random and from wordpress not from me

5 thoughts on “How bookshops can save the world

  1. I agree with James Daunt’s sentiments about the physical book (and – more prosaically – have always treated with skepticism the talk of its inevitable demise). But since he took over at Waterstone’s there has been a policy shift which rather belies his enthusiasm for restoring individuality and engaging with the local community. There is now no facility for individual booksellers to order stock for branches, either because of a personal affinity with the title or following the recommendation of a reader: all stock is now centrally ordered. Now this might just be a feature of a period of consolidation, while a new culture grows, but it doesn’t bode well for the sort of bottom-up thinking that he implies is the way forward…

    1. In some ways, you’re right. I checked out my local W’s today and the shop-windows shows how mixed up they are just now. Half-filled with latest ‘bestsellers’ and half-filled with twee Scottish-touristy type books, it’s as if they can’t quite make up their minds who their readers are. If they had a ‘reading room’ or way to connect directly with their readers they would know. But it’s a difficult time for everyone and I’m happy that my nearest town at least still has a bookshop.

      1. Charlie Hill

        Oh absolutely. And I wasn’t taking a cheap shot at Waterstone’s, either (given the lack of independent alternatives in Birmingham, I’ll carry on shopping there until they come to prise the last celebrity biography out of my cold dead hand.) I suppose I was just saying that I hope James Daunt is as bold as he can be. Because although things are difficult economically, I think there is an enormous public appetite for this type of initiative. (he may even find that the bolder he is, the more commercial sense it makes…)

  2. What an interesting post. Really enjoyed reading your thoughts on the state of books and bookselling today. Not listened to the podcast yet but will. While I agree with what Daunt says to an extent ie: that big book chains have crushed individuality at the sake of profit, I think that, paradoxically, big book chains, along with libraries and the Indie bookshops, do provide places where people can test and try books, buy books, read and share stories and even create their own stories. You just need to pop into Blackwells and Waterstones here in Edinburgh to see all the different ‘book activities’ going on, which support both readers and writers ( even little local authors like myself!). And the irony is that while libraries are being closed down and the Independent Stores continue to shut their doors ( sadly, our local, wonderful Independent bookstore Elvis Shakespeare says they may have to close due to a lack of business), it may only be the big books chains who will be able to afford to continue to support writers and readers in this “physical” way.

    I am now going to listen to the podcast – thanks again fro making me think!

    1. Thanks Marianne. I agreed with a lot of what JD said, especially his comments that sometimes small bookshops are intimidating in contrast to the anonymity provided in a larger chain. Looking back to how libraries began, by local people for the benefit of their communities, I can see a return to that kind, if not model, of reading and accessing books. How booksellers survive the current state of flux and keep selling to readers is a different question but there’s a lot they could do, such as, hook into creative writing, for example, which is v. popular with a wide and diverse range of people. I don’t know the answer but thought it worth starting the conversation and see where it flies.

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