According to the Guinness Book of Records the world’s oldest bookstore is in Portugal. The Livraria Bertrand opened its doors in 1732 in Lisbon, and has never been shut. In the UK, our oldest bookstore is Hatchard’s (now a branch of Waterstones), inhabiting, by and large, the same prestigious Piccadilly location since 1797, and the holder of no less than three Royal Warrants. Such longevity is a rarity, and cannot be claimed of many such endeavours, particularly those operating as independents.
Bookselling in the world of the independent is no easy task. Margins are wafer thin, hours are often long, sales are rarely predictable. Why do the owners of such shops put themselves through it? The answer, as I have discovered over the years chatting to these intrepid entrepreneurs, is simple: it makes them happy. To be surrounded by books, to have the opportunity to talk books with customers, to get to know those customers and develop a personal relationship with them… these are the intangible benefits of running a bookshop that cannot be quantified in purely monetary terms. For many, a chance twist of fate gave them the opportunity to follow a dream. For others, it was a linear progression from book nerd to bookstore summer job to book emporium colossus.
During my twenties, I lived for a decade in Mumbai, India. Here I discovered one of the country’s oldest bookshops. The Strand bookshop, established the year after Indian independence, witnessed the nation move through 70 years of change. Mr Shanbag, the shop’s eccentric owner, became a cult figure and the store was frequented by celebrities – including India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru – not that Shanbag treated him any differently! Sadly, after Shanbag’s death, the shop declined and was forced to close. I admit that I felt quite emotional when I heard the news.
In tribute to him, and the many other bookshop owners struggling against difficult headwinds, I decided to feature a small independent bookshop in my latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, set in 1950 in Bombay. The Wadia Book Emporium is based on the real Strand bookshop. Here is how I describe the shop in my book, pretty much the way I feel when I enter most bookstores: “It was the smell that always took her. The unmistakable musk of books, old and new. Arrayed on sagging shelves, piled on trestle tables, built up into drifts eight feet high, to form a haphazard maze that only hardened bibliophiles dared to tread.”
Indie bookshops make up an incredibly valuable part of the bookselling ecosystem. Such 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. Economic theory tells us that the book industry, as a whole, benefits from the variety and reach provided by this network of small-scale sellers, expanding the total market of readers.
Today, because of the lockdown, many bookshops are facing the most dire challenge to their livelihood. Government aid schemes can only go so far. Ultimately, for any bookshop to survive, it must sell books. That means the ball is now in our court. As readers, we must make the choice to buy from bookstores.
What better time to do that than Independent Bookshop Week?