In January HMV announced that, due to it and Waterstones collectively flailing around in a mire of doom, it’s going to close 60 stores this year. Gossiping with a bookseller last weekend I discovered Waterstones have had their ordering near-frozen -I’m not surprised, it was close to that when I worked for them nearly three years ago and it’s a bad sign. And now it transpires Waterstones might be sold to a Russian millionaire for less than a premiership striker.
Well good riddance then- corporate bookselling and corporate record chains that squeezed out the independents being killed off by even bigger corporate things. Awesome, now we can all ponce around pretending to buy things in idiot vanity projects like Lutyen and Rubenstein’s shop or whatever’s left of the independent record stores, whilst actually shuffling them all off Amazon. Brilliant, that sounds like exactly the sort of thing everyone can look forward to.
I can’t even avoid being sarcastic in the above three sentences of course. You know what’s going to really suck? Not having any bookshops in most small towns. Not having any record shops most likely, either. “Oh but it is all online, look at my oogly Kindle thing” you say- well, maybe, maybe, in ten years time but realistically it’s only now that physical music product is going and that’s a lot less tactile in its consumption anyway. Not to mention Amazon and Apple’s iBooks are hardly bastions of ethics for either the offer they extend to writers whose work they sell or the care they take for the books or their content.
Besides (and this is the big point) you might say “oh yes but this will lead to a rise of independent book/record sellers, The Man has fallen” but guys, no it won’t. If a big chain with big corporate credit can’t afford to keep a store open in your town, how is someone going to do it alone? The existing ones may stay open but there isn’t going to suddenly be a big surge towards them, anymore than there was when Borders closed. Even more fundamentally, if Waterstones/HMV group goes under then publishers will have to stop printing a great number of books; whether that number will be big enough that they have to stop entirely is a scary question and one I don’t want to see the grand experimental answer to. Kindle is coming but not that fast.
I’ll admit I’m massively biased here; I’m a former bookseller and of the two big corporate bodies I worked for, Waterstones was easily my favourite.* The one I worked in sits on the corner of Cornmarket and Broad Street in Oxford and is, to me, the platonic bookshop form. I spent hours poring over the contents of the basement children’s section as a tiny (when it had been a Dillon’s) and then later similar lengths of time haunting the sci-fi shelves as a young adult. When I got to work there it was the best and most awesome thing that had ever happened to my tiny book-obsessed mind and I think back on the time with a rosy-tinted belovedness that actually wasn’t probably the case as I mentally gnawed away at my Christmas temp’s minimum wage and fumbled copies of Robert Peston’s Big Book Of You’re Screwed.
If I was to feel conspiracy theorist about it (and since I’m clearly already in an occult mood why not) then I might say that damn right RBS and Lloyds Banking Group ought to give HMV/Waterstones a break. I realise this argument has been made with a million things since 2008 but when the banks failed due to ridiculous behaviour, we rescued them.
Waterstones and Borders did spend far too long trying to kill each other. After years of invader/encumbent joshing, half-pricing and 3-for-2-ing so much as to make it a staple they began, like all cold rivals, to look like each other. The number of times I was handed a Borders loyalty stamp card and had to politely inform the customer that they were in the wrong shop was proof if the increasingly similar merchandising, shop layout and even staff uniform weren’t blatant enough. Waterstones was acquiring small numbers of DVDs, selling Nintendo DSs and some classical music, while HMV at one point ran more profit on books than its literary sister and Borders started to be… well, less American. Shorter shelving, more popular history and science titles, fewer import magazines and even making an effort to push people off their trend-fixing settees after a few hours. Some publishers did well out of it- Tokyopop in particular found its manga translations in both chains up and down the country and sleb tie-in creators Ebury (publishers of things like Nigella Lawson’s cookbooks and most autobiographies circa Xmas) had far more front-of-house displays to fill by the square metre with their stock.
The basic transactional migration of staff between the chains (long-term Waterstones employees often told me of The Time Before Borders, an age of wonder and full staffing) showed up what was happening though. Neither budged but there’s never really been space or demand for a bookselling hyperpower.
No loyalty card had more interchanged stamps than poor Books Etc.; passed around with all the ceremony of its eponymous elipsis, eight stores bought by Borders in 2008 became eight stores bought by Waterstones as Borders UK faltered for the final time and began the inexorable decline of any empire. The stuttery little Tesco Express of bookselling, Books Etc. was never going to have a good time of it- its size was comparable to independents, its coding corporate but it lacked the familiarity of WH Smiths for even train-journey purchases; the two bigger chains picked it up like some sort of principle, though.
While an honourable move to preserve bookshops and jobs, acquiring more stores (especially London stores with high rent, relatively low reputation and former rivalry with Waterstones) was probably a stretch too far for the ailing HMV group. Hubristic though it is to try and make sure there’s a bookshop on every high street, next to the designer plastic tat shops and clothes shops flogging shirts made in appalling conditions overseas it feels like one worth at least a small amount of approval by even the most cynical onlooker, though.
Bookshops are important, you see. Not to get all wibbly at you but you can’t just be casual about something with that much STUFF in it. I find it worrying enough that there’s a possibility for books to actually be entirely destroyed (albeit I’d make the exception that in the case of Malcolm Gladwell he’s got it coming) but the idea that entire SHOPS of books can be destroyed, that that whole structure could be lost, is outright creepy. Call me superstitious but there seems to be something fundamentally wrong with pulling apart shelves and shutting down the order, dismantling these great cathedrals to knowledge. Accessible knowledge- maybe not free, like a library but you can walk in and you can look at things and admire both the pleasure of their structure and their sensuality** and the lush, myriad constructions of them, jewelled beetles with 3 for 2 stickers.
And yes, a lot of them are trash. Many of them are even by Jeremy Clarkson but would anyone really rather they weren’t there at all? Which is why of course I think you should go out this lunchbreak and support your local bookshop.
Sappy? Yes but not melodramatic. If Waterstones and HMV die it’ll have a knock-on effect on almost every high street up and down the country. No more excited teenage discoveries or idle wandering that ends up picking up seven books on cheese manufacture. Yes, there will still be bookshops but Blackwell’s small chain isn’t going to hold the quantity of stock the publishers need to turn over to keep going and there isn’t going to be one on every street. Hate The Man by all means but if your alternative is going to be Amazon or the iBooks store then that’s no victory for anyone.
*The other hot shelves I slaved over belonged (mostly) to Foyles, whose cockroach qualities will ensure they are still trading long after the nuclear winter has fallen. They were 100% less fun than Waterstones (who give booksellers control to do things like draw the displays, design promotions and make christmas trees out of old posters) rather than enforcing corporate standards. Yes I have written that the right way round.
**I’m willing to hedge a bet that a sizeable chunk of the population takes a book to bed or has at least a stack of them in their bedroom. Not that books are sexualised (apart from in specific and obvious cases, M. de Sade) but you can blearily prop yourself up on them on your morning commute, carry them around like an anxiety blanket all day and aside from a bedsharing significant other or particularly tenacious pet they’re often the last thing you touch at night.