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Monday, March 04, 2013

What happens after the great retail clear-out?

Not long ago Oxford Street had ten book shops. Now it has none - unless you count WH Smith.

Not long ago it also had half a dozen places you could buy records. It now has just one - and a sorry, understocked specimen it is at the moment.

Records and books are fast disappearing from our retail environment. You no longer encounter them on the way to get a sandwich. They enter most people's lives as noughts and ones or via the sturdy cardboard Amazon package.

I wonder whether they'll come back. Obviously not on the same level but maybe at a level enough to sustain some manufacture, distribution and retail, many notches below the mad over-supply of ten years ago.

We always cherish things just as they're about to slip away altogether. People had been gaily chucking away vinyl for years before they realised that this redundant, fragile format was about to be reborn as a soulful antique. When I did a programme for Radio Four about bootlegs a few years back there was reputedly only one record deck in the whole of the BBC. Now they're ordering them up like there's no tomorrow. Even CDs are now starting to feel just a little bit precious, which never happened before.

This is bound to be more the case as new CDs and books become less visible and more expensive, as they're surely bound to do as the number of retail outlets shrinks and Amazon, having taken control of the market, decides to push the price.

I was in Waterstone's in Piccadilly on Saturday, which is a pretty civilised place to buy books. I saw a book I was interested in. It was £9.99. I looked it up on the Amazon app on my phone. They had it for £6.89.

On two occasions recently I've walked out of independent book shops which didn't have what I asked for and hadn't heard of it either, stood on the pavement outside and ordered from Amazon from my phone. Both times I was thinking "I hope they're watching."

In Waterstone's I bought the copy in the shop. It's a nice environment, easy to navigate and the staff were pleasant. But more important than they, they had it. That's the clincher.

I don't expect to be able to find comprehensive book stores on every corner. A handful in the centre of London would probably do me fine. I would be perfectly happy with that.