Over the past three years since the launch of my first book, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra (book 1 in the Times bestselling Baby Ganesh detective agency series, about a Mumbai policeman investigating a murder, whilst grappling with the surreal dilemma of an inherited baby elephant) I have visited and spoken at numerous independent bookshops around the country. What has struck me has been the wonderful stories that have brought the owners and staff of these shops to their calling.
For many it was serendipity, a chance twist of fate that gave them the opportunity to follow a dream. For others it was a linear progression from book lover to bookstore summer job to book emporium colossus. Of course, the glue that binds all of these rebels-with-a-cause together – and binds them to the authors whose works fill their shops – is the love of literature.
Book selling in the world of the independent is no easy task.
Margins are wafer thin, hours are often long, sales are rarely predictable. And yet, as I talked to these intrepid entrepreneurs – about my books, literature, their dogs, the price of fish, and the arcane art of book selling – I realised that there was something else that they all had in common … they were happy! They were happy because they awoke each morning to the knowledge that they would spend another day in the company of books. They were happy because they had the opportunity to make others happy – their customers.
I am certainly not against online sellers or large bookstore chains (most authors understand that they are just as vital to the modern book ecosystem; and I, along with innumerable authors, have certainly benefited from their support) but there is something special about browsing through a local bookshop, a place where, like that old bar from Cheers, “everybody knows your name”. In such a magical setting, anything can happen. Coming across, by sheer serendipity, a book you hadn’t even considered buying. Meeting a fellow admirer of a particular author, and engaging in a passionate conversation about their latest offering. A quiet nook where you might sit and read, disturbed only by the sound of the little bell above the door jangling as another stalwart wanders in, shakes off the rain, and greets the owner with hearty bonhomie.
Admittedly, this vision of the local bookshop might seem a little rose-tinted, but I assure you it is not too far from the truth. Recently, I took cupcakes along to my local store, which has been around forever. I was born less than a mile from the shop, have grown up with it. The store has been a constant in a place that has changed beyond recognition in the past forty odd years.
And there are many other practical reasons why we need indie bookshops to not only survive, but thrive. Without indies many books would simply not be published. Indie bookshops drive sales in niche titles, hand-selling to customers they have spent years building relationships with. Without indies many new writers would struggle to find a voice; and mid-list authors would find themselves doomed to extinction, perhaps feted one day by a moist-eyed and faintly accusing David Attenborough. In a time of declining literacy, indies offer a friendly local environment that can serve to bring along reluctant readers of all ages. Economic theory tells us that the book industry as a whole benefits from the variety and reach provided by this network of sellers, expanding the total market of readers.
One incident stays with me. At a particular shop, I was astounded to see a panicked customer charging in, in dire need of a birthday gift for his other half. ‘Leave it to me’, the store owner said authoritatively. ‘I know her tastes.’ Needless to say a recommendation was swiftly forthcoming invoking a sigh of relief from our customer. It is this bond between indie bookseller and reader that leads to me believe that whatever the doom-mongers may predict, the little bookshop around the corner will be around for a good while yet.