Shelf defence

    30 November 2014

    You’d be forgiven for thinking that bookshops only ever close down. More than 500 have shut since 2005, leaving fewer than 1,000 in the UK. Yet amid the many doom-and-gloom stories of our country being on the verge of losing all its literary havens is the occasional good news of one not closing, but opening.

    A few weeks ago, Assouline opened its stately bookselling doors on Piccadilly, between Hatchards and the flagship Waterstones, and not far from Heywood Hill and Peter Harrington, which opened its Mayfair premises just this summer. Assouline is a French publisher of coffee-table books; Prosper Assouline, who founded the company with his wife, said in a recent interview, ‘We made a decision ten years ago to position our publishing company as a luxury brand.’

    Ten years ago, a book would indeed have to be Assouline-esque to be perceived as a luxury, with glossy, thick, beautifully designed pages and a price tag to match — their recent book about Valentino is nearly £100. Today, however, so much reading takes place on screen — be that news articles, work reports or ebooks — that all paper books have taken on a relatively luxurious hue. Publishers have aided this, as they realise that if readers are to spend extra money on a paper book rather than an electronic one, its paperiness must be a thing of value. Production quality has soared and books are now thick with expensive extras, from ribbon bookmarks to smart endpapers, and cover art is at its very best. Thanks to ebooks, a £7.99 paperback has never looked so chic.

    Many of us have flirted with ebooks over the past few years, but as we discovered how much can be gained by reading on-screen, it seems that we also grew to realise what was lost. A new report shows that 68 per cent of 15-to-25-year-olds — the generation that has always known the internet, for whom reading electronically must surely be second nature — prefer reading print. This indicates the pleasure to be found in a book as an object: the enjoyment of holding the thing, looking at the cover, turning the pages. This is choosing tactility and aesthetic over price and convenience. It is choosing the luxury of print.

    The pleasure of a book can be further heightened by the way in which it is bought. There is nothing luxurious about buying a book on Amazon, with its grim efficiency, bright white webpages and impersonal clicks. Likewise, there’s little pleasurable about paying for a book at the robotic self-service checkouts of the supermarket or WH Smith. These are places of deals and vouchers, built to maximise speed of transaction. By contrast, going into a good bookshop — and to have survived, they have to be good — is a joy. These are places where you are greeted by a real person, where the air is thick with the dusty smell particular to books, the hushed enthusiasm of conversations which meander delightfully unalgorithmically, and the thrill of discovery.

    Moreover, a bookshop is where you come not so much to pick up the book you know you want, but to find the book you never knew existed. Unlike the digital world, in which we have seemingly limitless choice, the bounds of a bookshop’s physical space make it a place of curated selection. Booksellers offer the luxury of placing the perfect thing under your unsuspecting nose. Some shops, such as Heywood Hill and Daunt Books in London, and Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, even offer a subscription service where, after an initial consultation, you are sent a book a month tailored to your taste.

    The future of bookshops is these curated spaces, which provide the luxury of a unique, personal, pleasurable experience, rather than competing on price. It is telling that the owner of Waterstones — the only real bookshop chain to remain on our high streets — hired as its MD James Daunt, who founded a chain of six independent bookshops in London. Many of the changes that Daunt has implemented make Waterstones branches more like independent bookshops, such as giving individual booksellers more freedom and smartening up the shops. He even, controversially, opened a Waterstones in Southwold and called it The Southwold Bookshop in an attempt to make it seem as much like an independent as possible.

    Of course screens are here to stay. We will keep buying things online, and reading things electronically, but this does not mean the death of physical books and bookshops. On the contrary, screens have served to highlight the many pleasures to be found in their absence. So let’s hope that the opening of Assouline heralds the arrival of many more bookshops, many more luxuries on our high streets. I’m sure there are plenty of us who long to delight in the great pleasure of physical space for physical books.