And why I, as a first-time published author, will be promoting my book at them
|Photo by Deborah Jaffe|
What have Irish poet Seamus Heaney and African-American novelist Toni Morrison got in common? Their books are amongst many I have bought at independent bookshops over the years.
Newly arrived in Britain more than two decades ago, I remember the excitement of venturing into an indie bookshop on West End Lane, in then chic-becoming West Hampstead. West End Lane Books is still there, its green exterior welcoming book lovers, both local and beyond.
Since then my love affair with these offbeat, unique and occasionally architecturally whimsical buildings has intensified. Some boast neatly arranged shelves. Others are jungles of higgledy-piggledy nooks and crannies. They all, however, offer a friendly hand to the visitor, inviting us to get lost in a volume’s open pages for hours.
It wasn’t long after I’d fallen for independent bookshops’ charm that the first threat appeared on the horizon. Behemoth Amazon arrived in the bookselling world and changed its business model overnight.
I confess that at the time I was as guilty as the next person of moving my custom online and using Amazon as my go-to for cheap music and literature purchases. Yet, at the same time I still frequented independent bookshops. It’s just that I did it less often.
Perhaps it’s because of more maturity on my part or the effects of an eighteen-month-long pandemic and its knock-on effect on socialising, but I have lately felt the urge to visit more indie bookshops. To amble in and ask the staff how they’re faring, how the business is doing and how the current situation is affecting them. As a newly published author whose book, Cuban, Immigrant, and Londoner, is being marketed and sold in all major retailers including Waterstones, WH Smith and, yes, you guessed it, online, on Amazon, I want to focus more on indie bookstores and its eclectic clientele.
An independent sector in such a crowded and commercially-driven world like bookselling is a precious resource to hold dear. Not every author has the backing of a big publishing house. That’s why I’ve come up with four ways (amongst many more. Please, feel free to leave your own suggestions in the comments box) in which we, writers and readers, can help keep indie bookshops afloat.
1- If you move into an area where you’re planning to stay long, have a look online and check where your local indie bookshop is. Many are difficult to find. High rents and overheads mean that sometimes bookstores have to share the space with other venue users. Hoxton Books sits on a busy thoroughfare in trendy Hoxton, but unless you know where to look, you’ll miss it. Have a walk around. Who knows? It might even inspire your next post, or even book.
2- Find out if they support other causes. Many independent bookshops link up with other creatives and support them in various ways. I’ve been to nights of poetry and music, where the money collected is split evenly between venue and performers. Again, have a butcher’s* online. That tenner you coughed up for the new edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets and Sujata Bhatt’s Augatora? It goes towards supporting the free performance you’ll attend next time.
3- Join a book club. Many independent bookshops run them. Part of me feels funny in suggesting this one because when it comes to reading, I’m a lone wolf. But at the same time I understand the importance of analysing certain literary works with a group of like-minded readers, even if they don’t all agree.
4- Bookshops nowadays double up as cafés, a trend that would have had fictional character Bernard Black (of Black Books notoriety) in a fit. But they do. If you can spare some time (and money) enjoying the homemade cakes on offer and drinking the freshly brewed coffee, you will still be supporting independent bookshops’ survival.
Independent bookstores are more than retailers. Many are community hubs, beating hearts of a neighbourhood, town or village, challenges to readers of all ages to broaden their horizons. Let’s hope these hives of creative power are still kicking around in years to come. Let’s get behind them.*Cockney rhyming slang: “look”, from “butcher’s hook”