Mean and myopic says David Bennett
My experiences of small local booksellers have been as obliging and dedicated allies, doing sterling work for the school bookshop movement. Profitability, haggling over discounts, necessary safeguards, never entered into things. We saw ourselves as partners in the business of setting up an outpost of the shop in my school. They supplied the books and I provided all the facilities and hard work, in return for a modest discount.
My current local bookseller recognises that my young customers are very likely to visit his bookshop, which is fairly near to school, and his business with me has spin-offs in terms of official school orders for text books. Added to which, the £ 1000 or so that I take in a year represents custom which he would otherwise not have had.
The small local bookseller can more easily identify with us and appreciate those intangible services to children we are aiming to provide – only a fool would see the bookshop solely in terms of School Fund money. The personal approach of his own business is akin to our approach. We want children to enjoy and appreciate books, to see the potential of books, and we attempt to achieve this by encouraging the choice and ownership of books. To do this well, we are usually working at a very time-consuming and tiring labour of love yet, in the process, we reach children whom booksellers seem unable to contact, but who will be potential book-buyers long after they have passed beyond the influence and persuasion of school.
But what of the big chain booksellers? Often my more lavish enterprises have required quantities of books that are more than a small supplier can reasonably be expected to provide, or would want to be left with on a sale-or-return basis. I can expect to take as much cash in three days as the average school bookshop takes in a year, or local bookshop in a week, so I have gone to a big chain shop, part of an international group of companies. Suddenly the rapport is gone; the books themselves have become commodities like breakfast cereal or soap powder, and those educational values that prompt me to offer to promote a new market place for the shop are swept aside as irrelevant by the succession of desk-bound administrators with whom I have to deal. What becomes singularly pertinent is that I can guarantee to select, collect, sell and return personally, pay for all loss or damage, put down a deposit, not ask for more than 10% discount and be grateful. Remember the recession; things are tight all round.
What I do remember is the expanding population of bored young people, many unemployed and trying to cope with increased leisure, who are trailing in and out of clothes and record shops, or else drifting around aimlessly, never thinking to visit a bookshop. If our more powerful booksellers were to glance up from their account books, which seem to be making them myopic, and peer out into the precincts beyond their plate glass doors, they would realise that they must increase their support and encouragement for the school bookshop movement, for the bookshops which we struggle to maintain. Their profits can never be so slender that they can be exonerated from doing all that is required in education for reading for leisure. It is fortunate that teachers being what they are, some schools will still have bookshops whatever the obstacles, but how much more effectively would we realise our ideals if all booksellers could perceive their obligations and were better disposed to play a more positive part which, after all, can only be in their own best interests in the long run.