by Alan Leitch
14th April 2021

This afternoon I’m going to a bookshop. Such a simple statement; such a basic pleasure; such an integral part of my life for so long, both personally and professionally.

I’ve worked in the book trade for over 40 years, since I started at Foyles in January 1980. My career has spanned shop-floor bookselling, various roles in publishing sales and running three of the UK’s leading bookselling chains. Nowadays, I’m the Chairman of Compass Independent Publishing Services which provides UK sales representation for a broad range of small and medium publishers, including Bristol University Press and its imprint Policy Press with whom we’ve worked since 2008.

Our role is to promote and sell their books wherever we can. So the Compass team regularly visit around 500 bookshop accounts: large and small; academic and general; chain stores and independents – and sell to wholesalers, library suppliers, specialist retailers, museums, galleries and other heritage sites, tourist outlets and internet resellers. And for some clients with student textbook lists we also work directly with lecturers and librarians on campus.

We haven’t, of course, been able to physically meet with any of our customers these past 12 months, and that’s not going to change immediately. But things will gradually open up over the coming period and we hope to be back in front of most of them before the start of the crucial autumn season.

In the meantime, we have been maintaining contact and keeping everyone updated via email, and Zoom has become another essential tool. The good news is that overall book sales are holding up incredibly well, but with physical stores closed for around six months over the past year, there has been a massive switch to online (estimates suggest that Amazon sales have grown by 40%).

So back to my bookshop visit…. I’m armed with a wish list that’s been building steadily over the past three months, but I have been absolutely determined to save my money for this special moment and for a physical bookshop.

As was the case when lockdown one ended, it won’t be exactly the same, with all the protective measures in place. And it will take time for booksellers to refresh their stock again from when they closed at the beginning of the year.

Realistically, they probably won’t have most of the things on my list. But I will doubtless buy a couple of books anyway, and – based on last summer – in all the essentials it will be overall a familiar and sufficiently authentic experience.

And it will feel really good. Not only because I have hugely missed just popping into a bookshop to browse over recent months. But because bookshops matter.

Books matter in themselves but the bookshop experience has a specific and crucial role:

  • Browsing, for new authors, new angles or just new anything. Online simply cannot replicate the serendipity of discovery that a bookshop offers;
  • ‘Try before you buy’. Brings the opportunity to dip into a book, to sample the writing and to gauge the look and feel of it;
  • On-the-spot expert advice and personal recommendations from instore booksellers;
  • Immediacy. You can start reading your book on the way home, or even in the shop;
  • Events. Bookshops provide a forum for readers to engage with authors face-to-face
  • Community. Many stores are also community hubs with cafes, reading groups and various other social activities

Sadly, the past year has seen too many bookshop casualties, particularly in the campus sector. These businesses were already struggling pre-covid. The inexorable rise of online purchasing combined with other socio-economic factors mean that almost all physical retailers have been facing new challenges.

In spite of their best efforts to adapt to these seismic changes, the fact is that bookshop numbers and bookshop sales have been steadily contracting for the past two decades. But the current situation has now dramatically accelerated that trend.

So those bookshops that remain desperately need our active support, and we can all make a difference. (Just as the same is of course true for pubs, restaurants, theatres and music venues as they start to open up again).

In my view, it’s very simple. If we lose more of our precious physical stores – the few remaining music shops, other specialist retailers, and above all those bookshops – then the world will be a much poorer place. They are not just a core foundation of our high streets, but a civilising force for good in our society.

I have nothing against Amazon and other online vendors. They do a great job and provide an important service, particularly over this past year. But, personally, I choose to spend my money in physical shops whenever I can. And if I have to buy online, there are numerous good alternatives to the internet-only operations – Blackwell’s and Waterstones have their own excellent websites, and the newly-launched supports independent bookshops by enabling them to compete effectively for a slice of the online book market.

So please try and use your local bookshop in whatever ways you can. If we lose these assets, our culture and our lives will be desperately and irreparably diminished, and it will be, at least in part our fault.

Alan Leitch is Chairman of Compass Independent Publishing Services.


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