The development of the internet has made available enormous amounts of written material, whether or not previously published in print form, and in forms that do not take up considerable storage space and corresponding problems of retrieval. For some forms of research, this has transformed the position – in my case, the digitisation and indexing of historic newspapers has greatly increased the scope and depth of sources. I have written two books, both for print publication. One is long remaindered, but while print copies of the second have been remaindered, it is still available on kindle, and presumably will remain so. I would be content for my first book to be available online for free, if this would mean that people would be able to read it.
However, I continue to feel alarmed by, and deeply regret, the diminution of print publishing, and specifically, the reduced numbers of bookshops. In part, this is because my own experiences in reading and learning, and the benefits which these brought, may not be available to future generations. Another feeling is that every printed book represents a considerable amount of work by authors (and others), and for it to be cast aside seems, in some way, to represent a callous consumerism.
Recent experiences this winter may bring this home. A visit to the rather odd series of units at Lady Heyes, near Frodsham (formerly industrial laboratories, now appended to a caravan park) always involved explorations of Cheshire Books. Occupying a large long unit, with bookshelves reaching up to a tall ceiling, this secondhand bookshop contained much older stock that seemed to shift slowly, but a good deal of local history material. It provided an opportunity to browse through older books that seemed to have left the shelves of more modern units. In many cases, this involved looking through texts of which I was totally unaware, sometimes written on quite unanticipated subjects.
I was shocked to find that Cheshire Books had vacated its unit to move some of the stock to a container in Buckley, presumably carrying out future business via internet sales. The tenant of a neighbouring unit confirmed that this large book emporium had been emptied in just under a month in December 2015. Much of the stock had been sold very cheaply, some by the pallet-load towards the end of the closing period, while the best stock had been moved to Buckley. The remaining stock was, I was informed, on pallets, wrapped up.
I found 13 pallets standing in a corner of the car park, in the open air. I had assumed that these would be rubbishy stock that would rarely attract a sale, but on inspecting this grisly sight, I saw several books that would have been of interest to me, had they not been compressed in huge piles. Others seemed to have tried to remove individual volumes from the bottom rows, but without success. I have no idea of the fate of these palleted books, but I found it disturbing that these contained so much work whose legacy was to stand in a heap in rain and sun. It may be true, and inevitable, that the results of most of our work is to be trashed, even if it seemed worthwhile to carry out the work in the first instance. However, a product like a printed book seems, somehow, to represent something that should be less ephemeral.
I have not returned to Cheshire Books, but in January 2016 visited Mold, which then had a small secondhand bookshop, Fact not Fiction, in a side-street. I had visited this occasionally, but now noted that it was due to close. The owner, a Liverpudlian, told me that the lease was about to expire, and he had decided not to seek renewal. After several years trading, trade had fallen off, and he had given up hope that it would ever revive, so he had decided to cut his losses and retire. The remaining stock was to be sold at 20p per volume (6 for a £1), and I soon had several bagloads. Some of the stock was of high quality, and at those prices even the battered volumes of paperbacks were worth taking away. The shop was like the proverbial rabbit warren; very narrow aisles on the ground floor, and a narrow steep staircase leading to a crammed upper room with no fire escape. This could not have survived and conformed with (correct) modern requirements for disability access and public safety. The owner was sanguine; he had plans to carry out casual work and sell the remaining stock from his own garden shed, and from minor stores that others had provided.
The end of the High Street bookshop has been partly brought about by internet sales, and discounted prices in supermarkets and large outlets. Few people would visit a small independent bookshop to purchase new books when these could be delivered more cheaply to their door via internet purchases, so that the new bookshop’s function is mostly “showrooming”. I would suspect that only the occasional specialist bookshop will survive the next 15 years. Some have survived so far by incorporating secondhand and/or remainder sales, but secondhand shops are also in steep decline.
I recall Ludlow featuring so many such shops that it was almost a rival to Hay-on-Wye, but now it has none. Visits to Southport were enlivened by the secondhand shop on the first floor of the Wayfarers Arcade, but will be no more, although the same business has relocated to Liverpool. There is a large bookshop behind the Lord Street frontage that survives, although its owner is now in his 70s. Wallasey long ago lost its last shop, although there is a market stall retailing bestsellers. Much the same applies in Birkenhead, where another rabbit warren closed about 5 years ago, and in Chester, where I recall a shop with the ancient but honest sign “old books”. I still visit a small shop in Rhos-on-Sea, the seaside resort that has the highest average age in Wales, where the owner has, seemingly, given up attempts to sell his business and (presumably) retire.
It is not that there is no demand for old books, or for retail units where these are sold. Secondhand books are a staple of charity shops, and many units from coffee shops to hotels to stately homes contain bookcases of secondhand books for sale or exchange. It is a fallacy of popular bourgeois economics that goods and services are supplied only when there is consumer demand, so that the decline of shops is because of falling demand. With exceptions, the problem is not lack of demand in itself, but lack of profitability. It is unusual for individual proprietors to make a lsignificant iving from the profits of a secondhand retail business, and when they do, this may be due to low-value owner-occupied premises, or large quantities of historic stock which is already paid for. It is unsurprising that most individuals cease to trade from shops rather than sell on their business and retire on the proceeds; and clearly, book storage in low-value premises (garden sheds, attics and basements), trading by post through internet sales, may well be a suitable retirement business.
Why do I lament this? I suppose part of my misgivings are rooted in the feeling that much of my own autodidact development was inspired by casual purchases in secondhand shops, although the membership of public and university libraries was also highly important. To lose one kind of source of knowledge is to limit the potential for the growth of new autodidacts.
A second concern is that the decline of secondhand books mirrors the fate of most commodities. Indeed, most commodities are produced for rapid sale and consumption, leaving only waste for recycling or disposal. As I stressed earlier, when this commodity represents not only hard work but also hard creative work, often embodying high hopes and expectations, it seems crass to simply see books as merely product to be consumed and destroyed. Maybe this is a romantic view, but many people who are no longer here, set down and organised thoughts into the form of a book, and for these to be no longer available is to present a second death, an end to their symbolic immortality, that words will survive when we are long forgotten. Not that this is why I write, and many authors see themselves as plying a trade, but there must be some who sense some sort of significance, and regret the contempt inherent as their work ceases to be available.
The final sense of disturbance caused by the decline of bookshops rests with a feeling that another valuable element of the public realm is being diminished. It is not the function of profitable businesses (in intention, if not in fact) to provide fulfilling experiences to consumers. And yet much that does matter to people – such as pubs, eating places, theatres, the arts in general, libraries, leisure facilities, and bookshops – may not be capable of being profitable (and so is publicly provided, albeit under attack), or may be of dubious profitability. These are the trivia – housing, health and education come under the same category of public importance. It is a reminder that so much that is important depends upon a system whose hidden hand, in Adam Smith’s terms, does not and cannot deliver the good life. The more that provision is surrendered to markets alone, the more that we will all lose; the bookshop, a largely private institution, is just one small element in a valued public realm that is under threat.