There were at least 40 independent socialist bookshops across the country in the late 1970s. Today there are no more than a handful. Last month the Guardian website launched a campaign to support all independent bookshops that still survive, publishing endorsements from loyal customers keen to protect what many see as an endangered species.
Yet the book trade is expanding. A million more books were bought last year than the year before. And the growth of the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements has generated a huge interest in reading about political ideas.
So why have independent bookshops suffered? Because big business has entered the book trade like never before. There are supersize chain bookshops on the high street. Amazon dominates book ordering on the internet. Even supermarkets are cherrypicking bestsellers and marketing them at knockdown prices.
This is all done in the name of giving customers more choice, better deals, more convenience. Sounds familiar? This is what the big supermarkets said when they moved into towns and drove small shops out of business. And it is now happening to books.
But aren’t cheap books a good thing? Yes—but there is a price to pay. We will not end up with greater access to more books, we will end up with the opposite. The more the big multinationals dominate the market, the more they will be able to shape it.
Central buyers for the big chains choose what books they promote and what books they discount. Will they be interested in bringing B Traven’s wonderful novels on workers’ rebellions in Mexico to a new audience for example, let alone Lenin on imperialism?
Recently the chain bookstore Waterstones said it would only stock books from small publishers if it obtained them at a huge discount. Waterstone’s is not interested in choice, only in the bottom line.
Supermarkets such as Asda or Tesco don’t create bestselling books. They just cash in on them once bookshops have made them successful. And of course you can’t ask Tesco’s staff about any other books by, say, John Le Carré. They’re not going to ring you up and say the book you ordered is ready to collect. They don’t provide an author’s backlist, or any kind of range, just books that are guaranteed to turn over rapidly.
Amazon has won many book lovers to its massive range and deep discounting. But it’s worth remembering how it does this. It is not the result of some revolutionary new method. In fact it is old fashioned classic capitalism—Amazon has carved out the market by slashing prices and offering loss leaders to crush opposition, going for years without making any profits.
Then, once they have wiped the competition out, it can charge and stock whatever it likes. And behind the “dot com miracle” image is a traditional low paid non-unionised workforce, forced into long hours, overtime and to reach quotas of 500 e-mails an hour.
Unions trying to organise at Amazon face an aggressive management claiming they are creating an “uncooperative attitude”. During one union recognition ballot, staff were kitted out with T-shirts telling the union to “get back in the history books”. One Amazon worker in the US at the time said, “They are a cutting edge e-company and also a throwback to old 1930s anti-unionism. They keep trying to label the union movement as an evil outside force.”
Why support independent bookshops in general—and Bookmarks in particular—even if they sometimes can’t offer the bargains available elsewhere? For a start, because Bookmarks takes bookstalls to trade union meetings and helps get ideas across to activists who are organising against rotten bosses.
But also because if you don’t, they might not be there next time you want to buy an anti-racist children’s book or an imported book on the US labour movement. For us books are not just commodities like tins of beans. They’re about ideas, the imagination and discovering other possibilities.
As Jimmy Clarke, a retired docker, once put it in an interview with Socialist Worker, “I love books because they help to defeat the pattern that is laid down for you by being born poor.”
Books can change people’s views on the world. They can explain how the system works. They can expose the real forces operating in society. So don’t let the multinationals stitch up the precious business of ideas.
Remember when you see the next irresistible “three for two” offer that they want to sell books to make a profit—we want to sell books to help change the world.
Bookmarks has been providing books for the labour movement for over 30 years. It offers bookstalls to union courses, conferences and campaign meetings. It welcomes orders from college libraries, reading groups and union branches, and it provides a worldwide mail order service. For more information e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org