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Today we heard the bad news that Borders has gone into administration in the UK. I know gigantic bookshops aren’t to everybody’s taste and that’s fair enough, but given the world’s economic woes I doubt there will be many plucky independents stepping into the breach should Borders’s close its stores for good.
The book industry has been in a tricky place for some years now. It’s been about three years since I worked as a bookseller, but back then bookshops had already been suffering for a long time. Supermarket bonanza offers and insane chain price promotions were burning the heart out of the trade. It was a kind of deforestation of the industry: everybody could tell it was unsustainable, but the chainsaws kept running nevertheless. And all this is before anybody even talks about online competition or the approaching dilemma of electronic readers and their inherent dangers of piracy. If the first decade of the twenty first century has seen wholesale changes in the way music and movies are distributed, marketed and copy-protected, the second decade could well be the one in which books run the same gauntlet. My hope is that the market will split and specialise. The celebrity biography and the mega-print-run pulp bestseller will compete in their own arena while the more literary titles carve out their own niche. Ideally this would strengthen the specialist independent bookshop, and to that end (because booksellers are fantastic) I thought I would share with you today the addresses of three very different but impressive bookshops I’ve visited on my travels over the last few months.
First up is Much Ado About Books, in the flabbergastingly picturesque village of Alfriston, East Sussex (specifically High St, Alfriston, East Sussex, BN26 5TY). It was indie bookseller of the year in 2007, and for good reason. It’s one of those nooks-and-crannies bookshops that has you exploring every alcove and corner for hidden gems. There are even books out in the garden, in special shelved cupboards. Nigh on every subject is covered, and they also produce a fine range of notepads using old book covers. Alfriston is only just beyond Brighton, so if you’re ever in that neck of the woods you could nip down there, grab some nosh in Badgers Tea House, then wander up onto the South Downs to read something from your purchase, overlooking the rolling countryside. Perfect.
Next up, the Poetry Bookshop in Hay-On-Wye. Given the state of the book industry, the fact that Hay continues to exist is beyond me. Regardless, it’s a very good thing that it does. I’m not an antiquarian or even a diehard fan of second hand books, but I know that Hay-On-Wye would be heaven if I was. In a town crammed with booksellers, the Poetry Bookshop stood out for me because of its sheer range. They’ve got every poet you’ve ever heard of in there, and about ten times as many that you haven’t, including swathes of international poetry and subject areas (such as Native American poetry) that might at best get a single volume in a regular bookstore. It can be found on Brook St, Hay-on-Wye, HR3 5BQ.
And finally, The Last Bookshop in Oxford (no website), which has just opened a second branch in the city centre. Every single book in this shop costs two pounds, but it’s far from your average discount store. The quality and range of the stock is superb, with everything represented: contemporary literature, classics, history, children’s books, you name it. I have no idea how they make their money, but I hope they continue to do so. You can go to either St. Aldates (the new one) or Walton Street in Jericho (the still-reasonably-new one). Be warned that they don’t take cards, so come armed to the teeth with pound coins.
And happy reading.