On books, bookshops and online interaction

India Knight who is a columnist for The Times, wrote this insightful piece for this weekend’s edition. I used to work at Waterstones, I also worked at the biggest wholesaler of books in Europe.

Winchester had 2 branches of Waterstones, I worked at the smaller one. One thing that was essential in our role as ‘bookseller’ was being able to locate every single book in the shop, straight away, even if it wasn’t your section. You had to learn where books were hiding, how to find the obscure science or business title quickly, because the customer hated to be kept waiting. You had to learn 3 different search sites and engines to find books in print, out of print, overseas and remind customers that ordering something from America on the 20th December – it won’t be in for Christmas. Unfortunately, you can’t tell customers that you’ve had all friggin year to shop for this book, and you try to now? It didn’t matter how rude the customer was, we had to be polite and helpful at all times. You don’t get that buying books with a click, or throwing them in your trolley.

I love bookshops, I will quite happily browse for hours in them. Secondhand, Borders, charity shops or independents; because I was brought up with a love of reading from my parents. I also love libraries, and will happily wander around shelves trawling titles for something that speaks to me, or something I am specifically looking for, or something that I’ve been recommended.

While I also like buying books, I hate being told what to buy because it is on special on the 3 for 2 table. The main reasons they are on special: the publisher printed too many and can’t shift it, so it is discounted; they are planning a big push on a not-fashionable author, so it is discounted; they have redesigned the covers of a series and want new people to read it, so it is discounted; and so on.

Treating books like commodities is not great, they are not cans of beans to rack em, pack em and stack em, but unfortunately that is what the industry has become, the more you buy the cheaper they are. I hate trying to find the ever elusive 3rd book, so Dan and I reached a conclusion before we even left the UK that if we went to buy something specific, we will buy what books we want to buy, whether they are discounted or not. However, for you Anglophiles, be grateful with the price you pay for books, as they are 2-3 times more expensive in Australia, which has increased my visits to libraries and curtailed my book buying. While it is cheaper to buy them online and have them delivered from overseas, you are again cutting out the knowledge of the bookseller who can recommend you titles based on what you like. How many times do you look at something on Amazon for them to ‘recommend’ a book you might like, that bears little or no relation to what you have just looked at?

I thought so, sometimes we need to stop going for the cheapest, easiest option and start talking to people again. Stop doing what you’re doing, just because it is easy. Stop expecting that the cheapest option is the best option. Start interacting with people, the world depends on it. Not just bookshops, but every facet of our lives now are run through computers, I am sharing this with 100s of people around the world via a computer. I would rather be sitting down face to face with my friends and having a coffee with them, than communicating like this. But I chose to live over here, so I choose the consequences that comes with that action.

While computers make our lives easier to communicate over greater distances, (I was able to Skype my parents last night and have a face to face conversation with them [ish]), I came off Facebook because I was sick of looking at a computer what felt like 24/7, if you want to talk to me, talk to me. If you want to write to me, write to me. Don’t like my status, don’t send me links to shitty applications, chain letters or ‘if you forward this on blah blah blah blah’. I am loving seeing pictures of my friend’s baby Poppy coming to us via email, but I loving more that she is taking time out her busy day with a newborn to type me proper emails, not just giving me a thumbs up on a social networking site.

Get out there and talk to people, make eye contact with the people that serve you in shops, say please and thank you, ask for assistance, reward their help with gratitude. Start living in this world, not in the cyber version, people depend on jobs even more now after the GFC, they may be working in a shop, but if you take that away from them, who knows where it will lead? That there could soon be no large chain of bookshops in the UK fills me with horror.

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