The Problem with Major Bookstore Chains

A partial transcript from Episode 21 of THE ART MOVEMENT. Scroll down to listen to the full radio show.

When it comes to literature, it is commonly believed that people read less nowadays. That myth has been debunked and the rise of ebooks, Kindles and so on have actually made accessibility easier.

Now, I’m a paperback guy when it comes to books, so I don’t really factor in a virtual experience as far as reading is concerned. It doesn’t work for me. So, one of the things I like to do is I like to visit bookstores, often to the point where I buy more books than I have time to read. I know there may be people out there listening to this who feel what I am saying.

The thing I have noticed is that bookstores in general are a tricky thing. If you go to the mainstream ones, their selection is not so impressive. I more than likely do not find the books I am looking for.

I’m also not surprised by anything that particularly catches my eye. It’s a lot of mainstream stuff, a lot of celebrity biographies, a lot of populist philosophy, a lot of books about cooking. There are some big name authors out there but only a handful are really prominently exhibited in those major bookstore chains.

This is not a new trend. In Galway, Ireland, the major bookstore is Eason. But I hardly ever remember buying a book there. I would usually go to Charlie Byrnes of Keane’s, though the latter was a bit further away from the city center. And most of the time, I would favor second-hand books, also because I used to be really, really broke.

Actually, what I liked to do is at the time, they would randomly stack books outside the store and I would close my eyes and randomly pick out a book from the 1 euro baskets. I would walk to the counter not knowing what I picked up, pay it and then see. Even if it sounded like the dullest, most uninteresting thing ever, I would make myself read at least the first chapters and try my best to get through the whole thing. That’s how I made so many great discoveries, read some really challenging books ever from an early age.

One time, I was embarrassed to walk to the counter with an adult book titled Amour, Amour by Marie Claire de Villefranche, and so I noticed what I had picked out before the counter. Instead of paying for the book, I was so embarrassed, I just walked off stealing it. I wasn’t caught but I guess the thrill of reading a pornography book was enhanced by the fact that I had stolen it.

All this to say that during the week, news was announced that 150,000 WHSmith jobs could be lost. When I lived in London and when my mother lived in the UK, that’s when I would occasionally visit one of their stores. Then, of course, I used to buy copies of Sight & Sound magazines at some airports there. But again, they’re overpriced and their selection of books tends to be pretty dull.

Of course, I feel for the people who risk losing their jobs. I really do. But I read a tweet reflecting my sentiments on the situation that stated: “I do wonder if the drop of customers at WHSmith is less to do with COVID and more to do with reducing the magazine and book and stationary stock to stock massively overpriced chocolate bars and bottles of water no-one ever wants.”

And I’m talking about WH Smith here but this is something that extends to the cultural sector at large. It’s like when you watch an episode of Kitchen Nightmares, and you see that these restaurants are in financial dire straits and in order to save their restaurants, instead of focusing on the quality, they try all these things that just cheapen them like early-bird specials and a menu that is too big, microwaving food and all that stuff.

In other words, what I am getting at is that WHSmith, but also arthouse cinemas and even museums and other art institutions are in dire need of a more tasteful curation. Maybe a long-term plan that works on a wider diversity and quality control.

Maybe the collapse of WHSmith will lead to the rebirth of independent bookstores and if that happens, it may be the best thing for cultural development. Of course, if it happens, I wish the thousands of people who will lose their job all the best.

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