This piece was originally intended as a kind of literary tour of Oxford’s bookshops – an inspiring, eye-opening write up that would have had you all breaking out of your college libraries in droves to rediscover the wonders of the book-buying process. In theory, it would have been a great article; Oxford has a larger-than-average selection of genuinely interesting stores, run for the most part by genuinely interesting people. There would have been more than enough material to fill a feature on the city’s hidden literary gems. Little did I know, however, that when I innocently ventured into the legendary (and admittedly amazing – you don’t get 4.7 out of 5 stars on Google Reviews for nothing) Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Jericho, my naive English student plans for a self-congratulatory article on the loveliness of Oxford’s bookshops were about to be thoroughly deflated – and I can’t thank the store’s wonderfully belligerent owner, Dennis, enough for it.
My chat with Dennis crystallised the reason for the expressions of polite bemusement I’d been met with at the bookshops I’d been visiting all morning: why is a student newspaper wanting to write about the bookshops its student readers are quite clearly not interested in visiting? I don’t mean to suggest that Oxford’s entire student body has turned its back on the printed word; clearly, there are a lot of people here who do really rather like reading (if their degree hasn’t yet beaten out of them any desire to look at a book ever again), and are doing a great deal of it in lots of different places. But, equally, we students are patently not doing that much reading – or buying – in Oxford’s independent bookshops. None of the shop owners I spoke to on my one-woman literary tour cited students as a significant contributor to their footfall, with one making the very fair point that the reason students aren’t in the bookshops is that they are in cafés on their laptops. There are, of course, a number of good reasons behind why we students, so vocal about the necessity of saving these shops, are not visiting them – one of the main ones, obviously, is money. The average Oxford student just doesn’t have the spare cash to spend £30 on Neil MacGregor’s Germany: Memories of a Nation, the top seller over Christmas at Summertown’s incredibly lovely The Book House. Indeed, the store’s owner was the first to acknowledge that he could only do such strong trade because many of his customers were “wealthy enough to be ethical”. The carefully selected variety and range of genuinely interesting stock (including a very strong history section) can only be appreciated because North Oxford is generally populated by people who can afford it.
And this is where I feel we need to get rid of our student Messiah complex about independent bookshops – one to which, until yesterday, I completely subscribed. Actually going into these various very lovely shops made me realise how wrong it was just to write another article exhorting you all to go and do the same; it would be just another piece we could read to reassure ourselves that, despite all the scaremongering, independent shops are alive and well and we can continue to go about our business of never visiting them. As Dennis quite rightly pointed out to me, I’d never visited the Albion Beatnik until I decided to write a piece on it.
And that seems to sum up the problem; we’re perfectly happy to fetishise the independent bookshop, engaging in the collective condemnation of society when we hear (as announced on Wednesday) that another four UK indies have to shut their doors, yet we fail to acknowledge that we’re part of the group that isn’t visiting them. Just to be clear, I am in no way calling for us to turn our backs on the independent bookshop and write it off as doomed – but if we’re only ‘supporting’ it by lamenting their hypothetical demise, then that’s not really any kind of positive support at all.
So yes, to come to the end of my rather conflicted existential crisis about how we should behave towards the independent bookshop, I do think that we’re incredibly lucky in Oxford to have what we have. The Book House has been open for 36 years, and I could tell when I visited it that there would always be a member of staff in there happy to direct you to the perfect book. There is something special in that interaction that feels like more than just a transaction. Equally, The Albion is unlike anywhere else in Oxford, and if you’re genuinely serious about rediscovering the book-buying ‘experience’ then there’s nowhere better to do it – 392 blog posts from adoring tourists can’t be wrong. But let’s stop pretending that our virtuous praise of the alternative bookshop is always a good thing; treating it as something that needs to be saved means we look at it as something deserving of our charity. To do that is to denigrate the pure and inimitable pleasure we should feel when we’re buying a book.