Magazine article Newsweek

Independent Booksellers Mount Offensive against Amazon's Dominance; as Amazon Battles Publishers over Pricing, Independent Bookstores Are Mounting an Online Offensive

Magazine article Newsweek

Independent Booksellers Mount Offensive against Amazon's Dominance; as Amazon Battles Publishers over Pricing, Independent Bookstores Are Mounting an Online Offensive

Article excerpt

Byline: Anthony Gardner

For the window of his bookstore, Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh has chosen Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov and William Burroughs's The Place of Dead Roads. Fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett's shop, Narrativia, is displaying Neil Gaiman's American Gods and Lynne Truss's ode to punctuation, Eats, Shoots and Leaves. A few doors down, Tony Parsons, author of the British best-seller Man and Boy, has shelves stacked with titles by John le Carre and Mario Puzo. Welcome to the newest address in bookselling: Author Street.

None of these shops have a physical existence: They are part of a recently launched British website, myindependentbookshop.co.uk, where anyone can post a selection of books he or she loves. If a reader buys a book you recommend, a percentage of the price goes to your favorite brick-and-mortar bookshop. Penguin Random House, which created the website, denies that it is trying to compete with Amazon, but to those who hate Amazon's Godzilla-like dominance of the market, myindependentbookshop.co.uk is a heartening salvo in the battle between the Seattle-based bookselling behemoth and traditional booksellers (to say nothing of Amazon's current pricing war with the Hachette Book Group).

"I love the idea of this website," says Felicity Rubinstein, co-owner of the bookshop and literary agency Lutyens & Rubinstein in London's Notting Hill district, "because what they've identified is that Amazon and its algorithms aren't personal, and the beauty of an independent bookstore is that it provides you with recommendations from people you trust."

With fewer than 1,000 independent bookshops left in the U.K. (compared with almost 11,000 in the U.S.), the success of Lutyens & Rubinstein--which opened five years ago, when the future looked blacker than printers' ink--seems almost miraculous. But take a trip to Chelsea, London, and you will find something stranger still. Tucked away off the King's Road, John Sandoe (Books) Ltd. (established in 1957, and with a customer list including Sir Tom Stoppard and Sir Elton John) has just expanded, increasing its floor space by a third.

"We had a chance to acquire the next-door premises," explains the shop's co-owner, Johnny de Falbe, "and it certainly didn't seem an irrational thing to do. To say no would have felt awful--really like turning up one's toes."

According to de Falbe, the disappearance of hundreds of independent bookshops has increased people's appreciation of the ones that still survive. "We may have lost some customers, but overall we've gained in trade, precisely because of Amazon. The feel of the physical space, and the idea of a bookshop as a nice place to go, matters to people more than ever, and they will make a considerable effort to come here, both from this country and from abroad."

The main danger to shops like his, he says, is the notion that they are doomed, which threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. "Of course bookshops are under strain--from Amazon and high rents and rates. But the number of people who come in and say, 'I didn't think shops like this still existed' is absolutely startling. …

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