The bookshop question: a friendly suggestion?

There are more urgent questions, as the world continues to fall to pieces in depressingly awful ways. But this blog is my distraction from all that, and perhaps in a tiny way one of your distractions too. So let’s allow ourselves to pause and think about independent bookshops …

Apart from the lovely CUP bookshop in Cambridge, my favourite bookshops these days are Toppings in Ely, the London Review of Books Bookshop (not just for the cakes), and the Oxfam Bookshop in Saffron Walden.

CUP has wonderful lists in maths and philosophy, and their bookshop is a delightful place, not to mention amazingly generous with discounts. While Oxfam bookshops can be very happy sources of serendipitous finds (classical CDs as well as books): the one in Walden which we go to a lot is particularly nice.

The other two shops are wonderful independent bookshops, that invite endless browsing in calm comfort in quiet corners. Justly famous for it. Long may they last. But I do have a small problem with them.

I try to resist looking it up, but when I come home with a handful of books, and check what I would have saved if instead I’d noted down the titles I’ve found and ordered them from Amazon instead, it is usually getting on for a third.

That’s a lot.

Especially on some £30 hardbacks.

Especially for someone who buys quite a few books, and whose funds aren’t unlimited these days (no more book grants!).

So what tends to happen is that I buy one or two books (happily paying the extra for the pleasure of the preceding browse) but then when I get home I order one or two more titles from Amazon, or from abebooks if not newly published. I guess quite a few of us do this sort of thing. Which isn’t really the best way to keep these quite splendid places in business, is it?

What would get to me change my behaviour, support the independent bookshops more, and hence keep them going (which is very certainly what I want)? A discount in some form or other. How much? Well, 15% would work for me. Even slightly less. Splitting the difference, as it were, between the cover price and typical Amazon.

Now, this isn’t just a guess. I buy a lot of CDs. And if I buy them from Heffers Sound in town, then I get 15% off using my university card. Which keeps me happy (I don’t worry about saving a bit more via Amazon, as I enjoy using the shop, and of course the instant gratification is worth a little). Again, I guess quite a few of us are like this.

True, 12.5% or 15% off for me is a lot more off a bookshop’s margin. However, with a discount, I’d buy three or four or five times as much in value from the independent shops (it would match my university discount at Blackwells) — I’d buy more books from them, and particularly more of the high-value ones. Over a year I’d be contributing significantly more to their profits. A small-fee discount card you had to apply for in advance would mean that the occasional passing shopper, or the once a year Christmas present shopper, would still be paying as before: while the serious book-buyer would be enticed to spend, in the end, a lot more. What’s not to like?

Something, I suppose, or the shops would be doing it already. Wouldn’t they?

Well, Toppings and the LRB Bookshop  do seem to be surviving, even flourishing (I really hope so): so good luck to them.  Meanwhile I guess that — until they take up my bright suggestion — I’ll just have to carry on visiting them, loving to browse and discovering new titles, buying some books there, and then slightly guiltily clicking “Add to basket” for more when I get home.

What do you do?

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3 Responses to The bookshop question: a friendly suggestion?

  1. Waterstones (in London at least, and presumably across the country) have a scheme that gives an incentive for the serious buyer, but not for those who spend little each year. You get a loyalty card, and a stamp on it for each £10 you spend in one go. (Spending £9 one day, and £19 the next, only gets you one stamp.) If you accumulate ten stamps by the expiry date, usually a few months from when you get the card, you get a £10 voucher. So the overall effect is a 10/110 = 0.0909 discount, if you always spend in £10 chunks, and spend fast enough to build up the stamps in time.

    A system that was based on a loyalty card with the customer’s name on it, and that logged spending in detail, would be able to apply a more sophisticated formula, without the irritation that spending £9 earns no points, and without fixed expiry dates for points.

    If independent booksellers wanted to do this sort of thing, it should be feasible. One would not need barcoded cards. Each customer in the scheme could be given a number, and would be asked to quote that number when making a purchase. A simple spreadsheet or database could do the sums, with transactions being entered manually by the staff. It should be fraud-proof, because each customer would have an incentive to quote their own number, not someone else’s.

  2. For both books and CDs I go to Amazon, but I try to buy from independent booksellers who are represented by Amazon – the prices are much better also. But I guess we’re just stuck with Oxford University Press and its very rich pricing structure.

  3. David Auerbach says:

    Here the USA, in my neck of the wood pulp, we have four (more counting specialty stores and university bookshops) independent bookstores. (This is the so-called Research Triangle.) They all offer a version of a membership discount; the difference between them and Amazon is less than Peter’s third. And, of course, they offer browsing, advice, seating, readings by authors, etc.
    An obscene advantage of Amazon here is their odd exemption from charging state sales tax, on the grounds that absent a brick-and-mortar presence in a state, they are not obligated. Poor Barnes&Noble, merely because they have physical bookstores must charge sales tax.

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