London bookshops: Thriving or surviving?

One of the first things I like to do when I visit a new city is to drop by the local bookshops and markets. London was no different. Big Ben and the London Eye could wait a little longer.

I did some research and found my way to Baker Street on a Saturday morning. The tourist signs showcasing Sherlock Holmes and Madame Tussauds in and around the tube station were alluring, but I tightened my blinkers and headed for Marylebone High Street to find Daunt Books—the first stop on my list.

According to a BBC report last year, the UK Booksellers Association reported that more than 500 independent bookshops have shut shop in the UK and Ireland since 2005, due to competition from online retailers, supermarkets and e-books.

But as I stepped into Daunt, all such fears were instantly wiped away. Given that Daunt is not exactly an independent store (it has six branches in the UK), the scene inside the Edwardian bookshop—with its wooden multi-storied galleries and cosy lounge areas—was a treat for the eyes.

Daunt Books (Photo credit: Jaideep Vaidya)

Being a weekend, the shop was bustling in its own hushed way. From 7 to 70, people were wandering around their favourite sections, browsing at peace. In fact, so busy was the place that the employees said that it was impossible to have a quick chat with me on a weekend and asked me to return in the middle of the week.

Without the slightest bit of disappointment, I did my bit of browsing and hiked along to Charing Cross Road, the books hub of London, which is littered with both big chains and small independent book stores. My first stop there was another famous chain, Foyles, which claims to be Europe’s biggest bookshop. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were.

Foyles (Photo credit: Jaideep Vaidya)

Foyles is spread across six (yes, you read that right) stories, including a cafe and an exclusive area for events. Apart from a plethora of books across every possible genre, they offer a free internal WiFi service to their customers to search and locate a book. They also have a library account, a discount card for students and a loyalty card—wittily named the ‘Foyalty’ card. To keep up with technology, they have their own e-book reader to counter Amazon’s Kindle. If that wasn’t enough, they also organise international literary tours such as the one to India’s famous annual Jaipur Literary Festival.

A hop, skip and jump across from Foyles is London’s oldest esoteric bookshop, Watkins Books, which has shelves titled Secret Societies, Indian Wisdom, Gurdjieff, Sufism, Magick and occult, Witchcraft and wicca, Hermetic arts and many more. If that doesn’t draw your attention, the wonderful aroma emanating from the various essences and oils also on sale certainly will.

Watkins Books (Photo credit: Jaideep Vaidya)

However, nothing can match the smell of a traditional bookshop, filled with old, rare and rugged leather-bound editions. Such is Any Amount of Books along Charing Cross Road, a rather flattering name for a tiny-looking store from the outside, but a purist’s wonderland on the inside, with a stuffy and compact basement chamber et al. Don’t be surprised if you chance upon a first edition, a signed copy or a really rare book over here. What was surprising, however, was that the proprietor was using a computer and they have over 42,000 books available for search online.

Ageist jokes apart, visiting these assorted gems proved one thing: bookshops have their own clientele and are definitely evolving with time to keep up with the online era. The Amazons and EBays may have drastically cut into the share of the brick and mortar store by offering books at a discounted rate and free delivery, but bookshops are not giving up so easily.

But how long will they survive?

Alex Ivanov, a 54-year-old man, admittedly does 60 per cent of his book shopping online. But he is optimistic: “I don’t think book shops will completely vanish. At least I hope not.”

Kelly Mercer, 33, a Kindle owner, says that it’s the experience of being in a bookshop that matters and not the price. “I find it more enjoyable to browse in a shop than online. If I know I want something specifically, that might be a little different and I may go online, but if I want to come and look at books, I prefer to wander around and look at the shelves. You can’t really wander around on a website. Well, you can but it’s just not the same.”

It really isn’t!

And finally, to catch some air and the wonderfully refreshing spray from the Thames, I walked across the Waterloo Bridge to the Southbank end. Tucked underneath the bridge is one of London’s most popular destinations for buying second-hand books at a real bargain. At the Southbank Centre Book Market, you can find old books for as cheap as £1 and some popular bestsellers for a real steal (£4-5).

Southbank Centre Book Market (Photo credit: Jaideep Vaidya)

So content was I that I could hardly bother when a biker rammed into me while I was walking around the market, my gaze fixed on the treasures laid on the table. I purchased three books for about £6 and walked away with a wide and content grin, knowing that my beloved bookshops were not going anywhere…well…at least not in my lifetime!

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