Saturday, April 14, 2007

Heroes Of The Write Stuff

An article in the financial section of today’s Guardian pegs a discussion of the current dismal state of highstreet bookshops in Britain on the story of how two heroes have made a success of an independent bookshop, Crockatt & Powell, near Waterloo station. Adam Powell used to work in Waterstones in Islington, one of my local bookshops, and he’s right on the mark when he comments about how depressing this once vibrant branch has become. Like all chain bookshops, its front of house is almost entirely taken up with three-for-two tables, with no sign of any individuality or attempt to cater to what Powell calls the hardcore customers - they people who buy 50-100 books a year.

Although the article is rightly scathing about the damage caused by the craven attitude of most publishers to supermarkets (and if you think Waterstones is dispiriting, check out the book shelves of a big Asda or Tescos), and doesn’t touch on the fact that almost all of the books displayed front-of-house in chains are there because the publishers have paid bungs to put them there. It costs publishers to get recommendations from chains too; it costs them even more to get their book in the window displays. It’s a scam that still doesn’t seem to be general knowledge. It’s almost killed off the midlist because no publisher is going to pay to promote a hardback thatwill probably sell no more than 2000 copies, or a paperback that won’t sell more than 5000 copies. And it’s killing off the chains because people who buy only a few books a year can get their fix at bargain prices at supermarkets, while discerning customers (who buy the most books) are fed up with being told what they should buy, and with shops that don’t stock what they’re looking for. A big hurrah, then, for people like Matthew Crockatt and Adam Powell, and let’s hope that the plan by Waterstone’s chief executive to makeover his shops so that they are able to ‘serve local communities’ succeeds without dumbing down their stocking policy in a vain attempt to match the brute buying power of the supermarkets. And if only there was some way that publishers, who are *losing money* on supermarket deals, would get together and agree to stop giving ridiculous discounts...

My own current reading? I’ve just finished Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland, a graphic novel that uses Lewis Carroll’s connections with Sunderland as the core of a phantasmagorical exploration of the tangled history of the town and its inhabitants. Provoking and poignant psychogeography that weaves a rich tapestry from individual human stories and lovingly burlesques all kinds of graphic stylings. And I’ve just started Walter Mosley’s Little Scarlet, a sure-footed thriller set in the aftermath of the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles, effortlessly carried by the strong and deceptively simple voice of its hero, Easy Rawlins.


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