Why Bookstores Matter

Thank goodness they’re staging a comeback.

Alexander Matthews
May 26, 2019 · 4 min read
Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash.

Most stores exist simply to make a profit: they’re designed purely to be a space in which a transaction is conducted between the buyer and the seller.

Bookstores — particularly independent ones — are different. Although sales are important (and making a profit is essential for their survival), this is simply by-product of an altogether nobler aim: to be a serene and safe sanctuary where readers can commune with ideas, with words and pictures.

Bookshops are the airports of the imagination — the place where your mind can take flight to other worlds. They’re spaces for contemplation, relaxation and escape — and a place where, in most cases, lingering is actively encouraged.

While the internet, e-readers and huge chains battered the fortunes of small bookshops across the world, it’s clear in many places that bricks-and-mortar stores are surviving — and, in some cases, thriving. What’s behind this renaissance?

I can’t speak for all customers, but I know why I keep returning. At a visceral level, I relish the way a good bookshop makes me feel — welcomed, protected, excited and connected. (When did Amazon.com ever make you feel warm and fuzzy?) I appreciate the advice of smart, real, flesh-and-blood humans about what to read. I like the magical serendipity these stores offer: the way you could stumble across a new favourite book or author quite simply by scanning the shelves and picking at random, or by selecting something that has, with its exquisite cover, seduced you. It’s a way of discovery that has no equivalent in the online realm.

As public libraries in many countries struggle to maintain relevance with inadequate acquisition and staffing budgets, bookshops have increasingly become a proxy of sorts for these precious places. And, they’re not just spaces for cultural consumption, but for production too: plenty of bookshops have launched their own publishing arms and literary festivals and other kinds of events, richly energising the literary landscape of the locales in which they are based.

Whichever city I visit, I try to go to at least one bookshop. My absolute favourite was the Reading Room — created by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London not far from its grand South Kensington home a few years ago. The high-ceilinged, white-walled space was one-part bookshop, one-part wine bar — and managed to be bothglamorous and inviting. You could munch on light snacks, sip a glass of wine and pore over one of the thousands of art and design titles for sale. Although the Reading Room sadly is no more, there are plenty of other bookshops I’ve loved that continue to thrive.

And, in spite of Amazon and other online behemoths, independent bookselling has thankfuly been experiencing a renaissance. According to NPR, the number of indie bookstores in the US grew by 35% from 2009 to 2015.

What are your favourite bookstores? Here’s a few of mine:

The Last Bookstore — Los Angeles: This behemoth in LA’s revitalised Downtown has more than 250,000 new and old titles.

City Lights Bookstore — San Francisco: Far more than just a bookstore — this was also the pioneering publisher of Allan Ginsberg’s once-banned Howl and has long been afervent crucible of controversial ideas and counter-culture. On my last visit, I spent ages browsing — going from one cosy room stacked with books to the next.

McNally Jackson — New York: This bright and warm indy in SoHo has an impressive range of literary journals and a great selection of American literary hits.

Hennessey + Ingalls — Los Angeles: Close to the beach in Santa Monica, this store offers a mouth-watering range of art books and delicious stationery.

Kinokuniya — Dubai: The vast Dubai outpost of this Japanese chain offers a welcoming, quiet respite from the flashy consumerism which surrounds it.

Waterstones (flagship Piccadilly branch) — London: I always make a point of visiting this, the flagship of Britain’s premier books chain, every time I’m in London. It is gloriously vast — six floors of books and magazines about absolutely everything under the sun.

Daunt Books (Marylebone branch) — London: Housed in a gorgeous Edwardian building on the Marylebone High Street. Books of different genres are grouped together according to region or country — so it’s ideal for travellers searching for books about the country they’re heading, whether that be a novel, travelogue or guide.

Shakespeare and Company — Paris: One of the most famous independent bookshops in the world, this storied space has hosted Ernest Hemingway and plenty of other literary luminaries since George Whitman opened its doors in 1951.

The Book Lounge — Cape Town: Living up to its name, this cosy two-storey bookshop close to Parliament has a thoughtfully edited selection of local titles as well as gems from abroad. It also hosts South Africa’s leading literary festival, Open Book, every September.

Bookdealers of Melville — Joburg: Crammed to the ceiling with the interesting, the obscure and the awesome, I lose hours here every time I visit. I’ve found wonderful titles that I would’ve been near-impossible to track down anywhere else.

Alexander Matthews

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journalist / globetrotter / bookworm ||| alexandermatthews.net/about

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