Upon returning home to south London for the Easter holidays, I experienced a mortifying sense of loss. As an English literature student it will come of no shock to the reader that I like books. They are my friends. The ones with the pretty front covers and gold trimmed pages are like an aesthetically attractive peer – you like to look at them and caress them and if you open them and like the contents then well, that is an added bonus. There are the books with the coffee stained pages and nibbled edges. Those are the friends with most fascinating personalities. You know that they have seen a lot. It will appear inevitable to the reader that, as books are my friends, I see book shops as a kind of social club.
My most beloved book shop, My Back Pages, is situated in Balham and has seen me through my degree’s reading lists with heavily discounted and brimming with character second hand books. I like to open a copy of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and read the pencilled scrawls ‘To Maggy, I am so sorry, Love Simon’ and think who was Maggy and why did Simon think that (spoiler alert) a book about the sexual assault and subsequent death of a young woman was an appropriate way of saying sorry. You just don’t get that thrill in Waterstones.
The lovely Irish man who runs my beloved book shop can no longer afford the rent. Like so many other independent retailers, he has had to pack up and sell up. Inevitably he will be replaced by a Foxtons or a cafe called Bumble Bees or something equally as nauseating. My Irish man blames ‘Margaret Thatcher’s free markets catching up with us’. The strength with which he feels this charge is starkly apparent as he made the statement with little sign of remorse for the fact that Mrs. Thatcher had passed away the day before.
Whatever one feels about Thatcher’s economic policies, there are a few others who need to be held to account for the plight of the independent book retailers. Amazon does an amazing job of offering cheap books delivered straight to your door. Kindles mean fewer people are buying books full stop. Even high street chains are suffering – who remembers Borders?
Without these charming one off establishments, Britain is at risk of turning into one great barrel of homogeneity. Every high street will consist of an estate agent, a chemist, a supermarket, a Costa/Starbucks/Nero, a Nandos and an arbitrary charity shop. An area’s ‘artiness’ will be measured by how many of these arbitrary charity shops there are. Gloucester Road and Stokes Croft are currently trying to fend off such influences, but if parts of London are anything to go by, such as Brixton and some of East London, they won’t last long. In fact, as I write this, the Foxtons in Brixton is being graffitied by a disgruntled local. I implore you not necessarily to graffiti, but to support your local shops before the world turns into one gigantic estate agent.
As a wise woman once told me (my mother) ‘If all the world were flat as sand, and all the sea were gravel, how blank and drab our maps would be, how sad would be to travel’.
Published in University of Bristol student newspaper The Epigram, May 2013