Earlier this week the Guardian book website unleashed a tumult of anger and frustration against the UK’s largest bookseller, Waterstones. The thrust of Stuart Jeffries article was that with its increasing commercialisation (3-4-2 sales, celebrity biogs etc etc) Waterstones had gone from saviour to destroyer of bookselling in just over a decade.
More interesting than the article itself however were the hundreds of comments left in response. Many continued the attack, and just as many came to the defence of Waterstones. But almost all conveyed the sense that there was something missing from bookselling. Commentors gave hints at what that something might be. We want quiet places to read and contemplate. We want steaming hot pots of water and infusions of fragrant teas. We want educated, erudite staff with whom we can discuss not just books but the broad range of knowledge we learn from them. Most of all, we want a sense of community, of connection with other like minded souls in search of meaning.
We want a church.
I’m certainly not the first person to observe that art has taken the place of religion in modern culture. People turn to art for the kind of comfort and insight they once sought from organised religion, particularly people from the urban professional classes for whom books are of such cultural importance. But while galleries, concert halls, theatres and other cultural institutions have geared themselves towards satisfying the (for lack of a better word) spiritual expectations of their audiences, the bookshop has gone in entirely the opposite direction. Galleries have positioned themselves as quiet, white spaces in the chaos of modern life. Bookshops are packed full of advertising and cross merchandising. Major performance venues bring people together for communal, shared experiences. Bookshops offer author events that suffer from a lack of ambition and are rarely well promoted. Bookshops have become a feature of shopping malls, but are conspicuously missing from the major arts and cultural centres developed in the last decade.
To me these problems are all symptomatic of a fundamental crisis at the heart of both book-selling and publishing. Books and reading, among the most fundamental cornerstones of our cultural (and hence spiritual) life, have in recent years been allowed to slide into existing as a purely commercial industry. In every other area of our cultural life, visual arts, theatre, TV, etc etc, we acknowledge the need for public subsidy to mitigate the less pleasant outcomes of commercialism. But because of their relatively strong commercial basis (theatre would long since have disappeared outside London without subsidy) bookshops and publishers have not made a case (and perhaps have never tried) to get support from the state.
Would Waterstones be better able to fulfil our cultural needs beyond selling books if it received subsidy to do so? Would independent bookshops flourish if they could access grants to support their existence?
Is it time that bookshops and publishers made the case for public subsidy?