In praise of the indies
I'm writing this in the train on my way back from two bookshop events near Manchester. Writers know that bookshop signings can be dispiriting and even humiliating occasions. Recently I sat for an hour in a branch of Waterstone's with two crimewriters who are much more famous than I am. People walked past and we tried to smile and engage them in conversation, but between us we only made two sales. In contrast the events in the independent bookshops I've just visited were wonderful and vibrant affairs. I spent an evening in Simply Books in Bramhall and an afternoon with the owners and readers at the Urmston Bookshop and have come away feeling optimistic about the future of traditional bookselling.
What did these places have in common? Welcoming and knowledgeable staff, a pleasant ambiance and very good cake - both have small cafes. Simply Books is an established shop. It hosts reading groups for children and for adults, including one specifically for crime readers. There are lovely features: once a month there's an afternoon tea and Andrew, the owner, reads a short story to his guests. These are people who are passionate about books and who enjoy sharing the passion.
On Wednesday evening sixty people were packed into the space and by the time I started speaking the wine and the conversation was already flowing freely. Some people had read my books and some had never heard of me, but they were a warm audience with lots of questions. And they all bought books.
Peter and Frances in Urmston are new to the game. Frances was a teacher and Peter an accountant and owning a bookshop was a dream that they'd had for years. They have the energy and the imagination - and the love of books - to make a go of it. The evening before I was there Frances had invited a group of Brownies to the shop to take their booklovers' badge and she's already made links with the local schools. Children with birthdays coming up can make a 'wish list' from the shop's stock so friends and relatives know what to buy.
They'd hired a room in the library for my talk and even on a blustery afternoon it was almost full. This was a different crowd and different questions, but there was the same excitement about discussing fiction with a writer new to them. There were lots of questions about the adaptation of VERA of course. And again, plenty of sales. When we returned to the shop at the end of the afternoon, a group of readers had made their way back there. They were sitting around the table, eating cake and drinking coffee. And talking about books.
It's easy to be pessimistic about the state of publishing and bookselling. But in one sense that's down to us. If we have an independent bookshop we should support it. It might be cheaper to buy books on-line or from a supermarket, but they can't provide the expertise, the evenings with authors, the friendship of readers' groups. Or the cake.