Friday, 2 March 2012

Love your books?

After yesterday’s post on World Book Day, it seemed apt to continue the theme – but on a rather more serious note.

It’s bad enough that, in the UK, independent book shops have taken a thrashing in the last couple of decades, as the neo-liberal idea of the ‘markets’ has seen them wilt under the pressure of massive, powerful book chains – and then the massive, powerful supermarkets.

There has been no protection for them – as there is in, say, Paris – but corporate clout has been allowed run riot, regardless of the consequences for quality.

Small is no longer beautiful and many who spout a supposedly pro-business mantra are only pro about vast corporations: they care little for small businesses.

Just one example of this impact can be seen on Euston Road in London, almost exactly opposite the British Library. There used to be a small, independent bookseller there called Unsworth’s. It sold antiquarian, second hand and remaindered books and you could turn up more than a few absolutely unexpected gems.

It presumably made enough to survive – until the landlord hiked the rent substantially and drove it (and a small, general shop a few doors down) out.

Unsworth’s was rescued by being given a small amount of space in Foyles on Charing Cross Road – not the first time an independent has found refuge there; it happened to Silver Moon in 2001.

Grant & Cutler, the superb foreign language bookshop that had its home on Great Marlborough Street, has gone the same way in the last year.

Coffee, Cake and Kink lost its home in Covent Garden – although this could be on the way back from just a cyber existence, where the coffee and the cake really aren’t much cop.

There’s something inherently wrong about this. And it is not being ‘anti-business’ to say so.

Economic systems are, of themselves, no more moral than they are immoral – any morality is simply a matter of the actions and decisions of those people who administer companies and governments.

But you only need to look at our high streets and town centres – dying on the one hand, and homogenised into identikit blandness on the other – to realise the damage that has been done by an attitude that says that might is right.

It’s an attitude that says, for instance, that it’s fine if, because you have more money/borrowing power to buy more of a product at a lower price and thus sell it on at a lower price, you put that smaller business out of business. Because if that smaller business can’t keep up, it has no right to be in business.

And the ‘choice’ argument too is, frankly, errant nonsense.

Book buyers and readers are not served better by losing the likes of Unsworth’s and Grant & Cutler – the ranges that they sold are not available in every Waterstone’s – let alone in Tesco.

Just as having 20 million varieties of potato-based snack to select from doesn’t mean that supermarkets, per se, offer greater choice in anything much else at all. In fact, they offer reduced choice, since you have fewer places to choose from in which to buy whatever you want.

The neo-liberal idea of increased choice created by aggressive laissez-faire capitalism is a nonsense – at least as seen in the UK of today. Just as the idea that being able to ‘choose’ which company you pay your water bill to is meaningless, since you cannot actually chose what water you buy.

But the threat is not just to independent bookshops: libraries are under threat too – many of them, right across the UK are closing or facing closure or cuts.

I remember, attending a traditional girls’ grammar school, that being a librarian was a job that required a decent degree and was considered a good job.

Like so many other jobs (teachers, for instance) such roles have been gradually down played so that now, in terms of libraries, the idea is that volunteers can run your local library if cutting real jobs (or the pay of those in those real jobs) doesn’t cut costs enough.

Campaigning against this is far from being a case of the ‘usual suspects’: indeed, the campaign has brought together such apparently diverse groups as trade union UNISON and the Women’s Institute.

Libraries are far more than simply a place to borrow books – although the importance of that, culturally and in terms of literacy – can hardly be overstated.

Take the library in Winsford, Cheshire.

There, staff have had to deal with some appalling behaviour – assaults and vandalism in an increasingly boarded-up town centre.

But they can also tell heartening stories – such as that about a local boy, aged 10, who visited the library regularly on his own and would take a stack of books out with him.

None of his family read – he came from what staff called an ‘Argos family’ – in other words, a household where the Argos catalogue was the only reading matter to be found.

He came from the most deprived part of the town; no family ever came with him and, if he had a fine to pay, he had to finds the money himself.

Once a week, the library hosts a reading group for people with or recovering from mental illness. They have to have been referred to the library to become part of the group.

They take turns to read from a book (nobody's forced if they don't want to) and then a librarian asks questions to start a discussion.

In Winsford, there are seven people attending these sessions – they regularly all turn up, which is regarded as an incredible record, and a stable and stabilising situation for them all.

There are also, of course, the groups for parents to bring young children to.

And at least one elderly person spends most of one or two days a week in the library. He lives on his own. But the library is where he finds a haven from his loneliness.

Libraries are not simply a rather tweely comfortable concern among the middle class that remember them – but don’t use them.

You an find out more in a variety of places, but as starting points, there is Alan Gibbons’s blog, which hosts a lot of information about Campaign for the Book. The Facebook site for that campaign is here.

You can also find out more here, here and here.


  1. I couldn't agree with you more. Libraries are to be treasured! When I lost my job a few years ago, libraries were an absolute lifesaver and helped restore my sanity and sense of humour!

  2. Absolutely! They're not a luxury.

  3. At least Grant & Cutler survives as part of Foyles in their Charing Cross Road branch... and Unsworth's is now operating from a shop in Cecil Court.