Picture the scene: on a trip to your local bookshop, you have a good chat with the kindly chap behind the counter and ask for his recommendations on WW2 spy novels. Then, you pick up the best of his suggestions, whip out your phone, scan the barcodes and buy them on Amazon.
There’s long been a crisis brewing for the nation’s book and record shops – but now the enemy is at the gates. The problem is smartphones – or rather apps, which allow you to scan a barcode and instantly work out the cheapest method of buying an item. People walk in, enjoy the store, browse the stacks, flick through the bestsellers, talk to staff – and then grab their phone and buy online. Online comparison no longer entails hours on price comparison sites looking for those expensive fridges and TVs. It’s right there in your pocket.
The problem for book and record shops is this: they offer something that the web cannot – browsing, personal help and recommendation. And then as soon as a customer has the book or CD in their hand, they decide they want what the bookshop cannot offer – rock bottom, low-overhead, bulk buying prices. In books and music, as in the rest of life, we have come to believe that the cheapest option is the best.
But the problem is this: you can’t have it both ways – and the people exploiting their local stores in this way don’t seem to recognise that. You either get your recommendations from a human, or an algorithm – but if you consistently buy on price, the human choice will rapidly disappear.
If you don’t buy from the bookshop then eventually, your lunchbreak will be spent staring at another boarded up High Street gem. Even the bigger chains are suffering –my local Waterstones staff are friendly and helpful and know their stuff and I don’t want them to disappear. I like buying online when I have to – when something is rare, or I need it quickly. But when I don’t, I have to put my money where my mouth is.
In Chiswick, there’s an independent record store called Dada. This one is unusual – it set up when record shops were going down the spout – independent chain Fopp slashed its stores (rumour has it that Dada is the child of Fopp exiles), Virgin megastores became Zavvi, then disappeared, and famous even indie stalwarts like Nottingham’s Selectadisc closed down (rumours of its reappearance seem sadly unfounded).
Dada is a mixture of Fopp-esque pricing (albums at nice round prices and loads of bargains means I generally leave with back catalogue to go along with my latest purchase), variety (books, DVDs and audiobooks) and old-school record store – vinyl, local artist support, etc. I love going in there and I want them to survive.
So I recognise that it’s not enough to like the shop – they need my money more than iTunes does, handy as it is (and much as I received iTunes vouchers for Christmas). If I want t continue to buy music from people who give a damn, I have to give a damn about them.
It’s not enough to profess how much you love your local record shop or bookstore. Go there right now and think about the 50p or £1 price difference to online as an investment in your quality of life and to the people that know their stuff and that we take for granted.