Independent bookshops often prompt a lifelong love of reading. Now it’s time to support them, in person or through sensible online marketplaces.
That bookshops were among the first businesses allowed to reopen after lockdowns across the world is proof of the value they hold for a city’s cultural life. Booksellers are community-makers too – how many birthday presents have they advised on, knowing little more than the recipient’s age and favourite title? How many of their recommendations had the power to change someone’s approach to life or simply to amuse them for a while? The knowing way in which a seasoned bookseller disappears between the shelves on the hunt for the perfect fit for a reader (often delivering obscure but wondrous surprises) is unmatched.
These neighbourhood shops need preserving. The easiest way to support your go-to is to continue going, leafing through pages and buying. Some, such as monocle’s London neighbour Daunt Books, have set up ways to purchase gift cards or to buy into their subscription: in Daunt’s case, for £160 (€175) a year, customers receive a gift-wrapped book every month, chosen to suit them.
If for any reason (be it geography or rules), heading in for a browse is not possible, don’t give in to the siren call of large online retailers. Long a spectre hanging over the publishing industry, Amazon is hard to beat in terms of inventory and delivery speed but the writer and publisher Andy Hunter decided that it was time to launch a project that could challenge it in one way: how a purchase makes you feel. His online marketplace Bookshop.org brings together more than 1,000 independent bookshops in the US and more than 350 in the UK (some of which are pictured here). Having launched last year, it is set for European expansion. “A lot of people feel the way that I do, which is that independent bookshops were an entry point for them into a lifelong love of reading, learning, understanding the world and connecting with others,” says Hunter. “They are of outsized cultural importance. They’re not just shops, they’re advocates for the relevance of books in their community.” Bookshop.org processes orders via a single wholesaler and distributor, which makes e-commerce a viable option for many businesses that would not otherwise have the means to adopt it. “A lot of them don’t have the money to build fancy, nice websites; many are very lean operations with only a few employees,” says Hunter. “Sometimes they are literally mom-and-pop businesses. They don’t necessarily have the bandwidth or technical knowledge to set up a good online e-commerce platform.”
On Bookshop.org, shops can set up their profile in less than half an hour and start trading immediately. Although sales through the platform yield 30 per cent of the value of the book for them, against about 40 per cent which they would make if they sold it directly, they pay no overheads and are spared shipment headaches.
Bookshop.org is run as a benefit corporation, not a non-profit. The 21-strong team finances itself via sales through its affiliate network (whenever an article or webpage links to an item on Bookshop.org, and that item is bought) and adverts on its US site. “It allows us to give the maximum profit to the shops which I think is really critical to making it work,” says Hunter. “The digital sales that Bookshop.org provides are just meant to augment the store’s revenues. But we’re really happy to provide a lifeline of support.”