Well, as some of our regulars from our previous location in Bermondsey might know, the autumn-winter of 2012 was a tough one for us. We had spent the last six months of 2012 vacillating between deciding whether to close down or limp along. [Serendipitiously, we caught a rerun of You've Got Mail that winter, which brought home the stark reality of what we were up against.]
2012 had not been a kind year -- we had seen 6 months of sales underperforming on a month-by-month comparison with the year before. Not that 2011 had been a walk in the park -- some days were just so gadawful. [I even wrote a blog entry on 13 September 2011, when that day, after 8 hours of operation, total sales was a paltry £126.80.] I spent much of my time mulling over why, somehow, no matter what we tried to do, we couldn't pay the bills. We also tried negotiating with our landlord, even appealed to the council about our business rates, but came up empty-handed. The answer seemed inevitable.
My partner, Shivaun, and I thought long and hard about what we were going to do. We could call it a day and just give up. There were even suggestions from our team members that we should put a call out on Facebook or Twitter, the way Big Green Bookshop had done in order to generate support and stop it from going under. Secretly, I was wondering whether doing such a thing may inspire some well-known author to champion our cause, the way Neil Gaiman had lent support to DreamHaven in Minneapolis. Hearing our sad news, the authors AC Grayling and Katie Hickman did offer to do an event at ours in the hopes that that would help set things right. But, pride got in the way.
One of the things that Shivaun and I have been very adamant about is that we won't beg for business. Maybe we're just bullheaded. But we believe that where you buy your books should be a guilt-free choice. (I kinda went on and on about this once.) Which is why we even shied away from taking part in the Booksellers Association's 'We Pay Our Taxes!' campaign. In fact, once the decision was made to close, we didn't shout from the rooftops. We didn't stick 'Clearance Sale' stickers on the doors. We simply closed. Which is why Ann Patchett's story struck such a chord with us. One line in particular resonates strongly with us: 'If what a bookstore offers matters to you, then shop at a bookstore.'
Ann Patchett's route from an author to a bookseller when she opened Parnassus with Karen Hayes is a story that's familiar to many booksellers. (Well, most of it anyway; not every bookseller starts off as an award-winning author and gets to talk about their soon-to-be-launched bookshop on national TV, or has a dream list of authors willing to do author events in their shop.) But the fears, the anxiety, the hopes, and the motivations are familiar. Which is why we decided that The Booskhop Strikes Back should be essential reading for anyone and everyone who wants to understand why despite the bad news, so many indies keep keeping on until the wheels fall off. When we decided to spread Ann's message, we thought at first of ordering 100 copies and giving them away, but after much thought (plus a glance at our bank balance), we decided to offer the chapbook for sale at the RRP£1.99, and only give a copy away with each purchase of £20 or above. We also decided to 'insert' a little leaflet of our story with each copy, to explain to customers why we were engaging in this mini campaign.
Of course we are aware that many people out there are unsympathetic to the plight of indie brick-and-mortar shops. Some think indie booksellers just whinge and moan way too much; all you have to do is read the comments under any news article about another indie bookshop closing and you'll see what I mean. This is predicated upon the belief that business is about survival of the fittest. (To which I want to say, please read Anita Roddick's Business As Unusual or Spiritual Capital by Danah Zohar -- I can't believe that capitalism as we experience it today is the only way.) Having said that, on some level, I grudgingly agree: if your business just can't break even, what right do you have to stay in business? (Our accountants groaned when we told them we were going to try again and relocate our bookshop to Bankside, so I appreciate that this is a common sentiment.) But what I would dearly love to impress upon anyone is that not all indie booksellers expect to be preserved as if that's a moral right. What people need to understand is that the business model is 'broke' and the cards are stacked against indie booksellers. No matter how lean the operations, or how ingenious at tweaking their offerings, indie booksellers have to fight upstream because their core product doesn't pay enough. That, I think, is the real challenge many booksellers face -- when does persevering veer into vanity project territory or a form of thankless community service?
At the end of the day, whether an indie bookseller survives or not is up to the value customers place on it being around. All I can say, from the perspective of W&T, is that come what may, we won't regret trying. So, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, if what your indie bookseller does means something to you -- go on, drop by and buy a book. Feeling skint? Buy a bookmark. Show your support in some way -- they'll appreciate it.
PS. To raise awareness about the plight of indie booksellers, pick up a copy of Ann Patchett's The Bookshop Strikes Back. If you spend some of your time in cyberspace, please do spread the word on twitter using #bookshopstrikesback.
With thanks from all of us at W&T. - Fran