“If a bookshop contained all the books ever written, what are the chances that you would find the one book you need? … No, the perfect bookshop is small, small and selective.”
(Mark Forsyth, The Unknown Unknown, 2015)
A bookshop is essentially a place of conversation. Whether it is conducted in private between you and your books, in real time face-to-face, or here in the public digital domain, Ark Review invites you to share the pieces you like and post comments to get the reader-to-reader conversation going. In this spirit, I’d like to continue the conversation by picking up an idea that has stayed with me since we first launched Ark Review one month ago.
And I would like to begin by asking you this.
When you think of your favorite bookshop, what comes to mind? Is it the size of the physical space that makes it special, its location on an unknown, narrow street? Is it the booksellers there and their taste(s) in literature, books stacked in rows and piled high in corners, the ticking clock or the comfy chair, or is it the mysteriously quiet, yet quite mesmerizing liveliness of the room?
Since we aired Good News: The Book Lives! I have thought a lot about the tendency in our culture to assign importance to ‘size’. Darwin’s “the survival of the fittest”-phrase (“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”) is often (mis)used to emphasize strength and big size as quintessential to success. But as the quote points out, strength is actually not the issue.
Still, we tend to believe that this is the case.
Within the book industry, at home and abroad, there’s a leaning towards conceptualizing winners and losers in terms of ‘size’ – Amazon is often seen as the big usurper of market shares leaving a trail of devastating consequences for small and independent bookshops. For some reason, bigger seems better due to a “the more volume, the bigger the output” logic.
What is it about ‘size’ that makes us believe that bigger is better?
Success is often measured in terms of growth in sales, as illustrated recently at Forbes.com: “The numbers don’t lie; bookstores aren’t dead. According to the American Booksellers Association, independent bookstores are thriving — Bookstore sales are up 6.1% since January 2016.”
Independent bookstores (in the US) are seemingly thriving because sales are up. But what are they up from? And what about cost and benefits? The reports seldom say. Of course, increased sales usually means more books on the shelves and rent and salaries are paid on time. Great news for the revenue. But on a more critical note: Who’s measuring if a bought book is also a read book? Shouldn’t that be our biggest concern? What is it about ‘size’ that makes us believe that bigger is better? The ways in which sales percentages are used as a measure of how the indie industry is thriving shows how obsessed we’ve become with the idea of a tangible, measurable output. And I think we fail to see the true gem of the output.
Lately, I have come to realize that the discussion about the future of books and in particular the future of brick-and-mortar have taken on a rhetoric that is comparable to the story – or metaphor, rather – of David versus Goliath. We see this, for instance, in thebattleof analogue paper versus digital e-books, or in the struggleof the small independentbookshops facing the big, corporate warehouse-like bookstores. And it’s understandable to see why: Where the original purpose of the story was to show David’s identity as the true king of Israel, the phrase “David versus Goliath” has taken on a more secular meaning, denoting an underdog situation, a contest-like scenario, where a smaller and seemingly weaker opponent faces a much bigger, stronger adversary. But, whereas in the story small actually beats big, we tend to focus on this fear that Amazon will just bulldoze and take over everything anyway instead of focusing on upping our own game.
It has made me re-think the aesthetics of ‘size’ and the way we assign meaning to size as a measure of value and importance.
In The Unknown Unknown, a very small book indeed (and which we stock in the store, by the way), Mark Forsyth argues the case of the ‘Good Bookshop’ and presents his ideas through a “less is more” logic:
The Good Bookshop: a room (or two) where the unknown unknowns of the world are laid out on tables and stacked in shelves, where you can find what you never knew you wanted, where your desires can be perpetually expanded … In a good bookshop, random is good enough. You should be able to take any book from the shelves and say: Yes, this is what I’m going to read next. Half of the art of bookselling is about choosing what not to have in your shop. It is not enough to have good books, you must not have bad books.
According to Forsyth, a good bookshop curates its content specifically to fill that gap in your knowledge. By presenting you with new books and ideas that have already been pre-approved and qualified to expand your mind and grow your personality, as Forsyth puts it, the perfect bookshop is small and selectively stocked. And as much as I like getting lost roaming the shelves of multiple-story bookstores such as Waterstones or Barnes & Noble, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most lists featuring “the world’s best bookstores” describe the featured bookstores as the best kept secrets in the world, thus celebrating the small and quirky, the odd and the specialized, the aesthetics of the selective and edgy.
When I think of my favourite bookstores … it is exactly that intangible thing that draws me there; the anticipation of a new discovery, the feeling of community, of belonging and being among likeminded friends – the paper ones as well as my fellow readers.
In my mind, a bookshop should not be measured by its number of square feet, its sales percentages or return-of-investment proficiency. It should be measured by its ability to generate conversation and community – its ability to make readers come back. My last shift at Ark confirmed this. On a clear, blue and sunny September Sunday morning, one of our regular customers came in to just hang out and roam the shelves. It being a very slowSunday morning, we had plenty of time and room to just talk, and so we did. We talked about favourite books and TED talks on feminism, racism, history, culture, how our own lives and stories reflected these issues and how some books had changed our perspective and how important that is. We exchanged reading experiences and used them to enrich the conversation. We grew a little and the point of it all was clear: It has to be personal if we are to care and connect. And it illustrates the importance and strength of the bookshop as thatplace that touches these issues and those stories.
It has to be personal, and to me, this is the true gem of the output.
Customers are all about convenience, so the competition is quite naturally Amazon. It’s too easy to sit at home and go online and order everything you want and have it sent to your doorstep. But actual bookstores are the physical manifestation of the world’s longest, best, most thrilling conversation conducted among a vast number of readers, and while that is not as tangible, it is truly essential.
So, when you thought about your favourite bookshop earlier, what came to mind?
Did size matter?
Foyles at Charing’s Cross, London. © Photo: Daniel Waisberg.
When I think of my favourite bookstores – naturally, I’m talking bookstores in the plural, because how can one really decide? – it is exactly that intangible thing that draws me there; the anticipation of a new discovery, the feeling of community, of belonging and being among likeminded friends – the paper ones as well as my fellow readers. It’s a feeling of home. Take Foyles in London, where a great sign over the first floor stairwell reads: “Welcome book lover, you are among friends.” And I truly feel that, even though the store is humongous and I as a non-regular costumer know no one there, personally.
Wherever I go, I always look for that hidden #bookish gem, where I can go explore the unknown unknown and satisfy my zest for new stories. I go, because I look for conversation – and that, to me, is huge!
(Originally published in The Ark Review, October 4, 2016).