Take a walk down the main street in Southwold, England, on a busy day and you will find people milling around in art galleries, trying on clothes in relatively high-end stores, and sampling the delights of the Two Magpies Bakery’s daily offerings. You may also notice a pale blue facade with enticing, book-filled windows. But only the most eagle-eyed visitor would notice that all isn’t as it seems, and that Southwold Books is actually just a Waterstones chain in disguise. Why do they feel the need to do such a thing, you may ask? Could it be, perhaps, that chains such Waterstones are threatened by the current success of independent bookstores, or are they simply making a sensible business decision by jumping right on the “local-and-independent-is-best” bandwagon?
Independent bookshops have seen somewhat of a revival as of late. Only a few years ago, media outlets were reporting a decline in indie bookshops, thanks to competition from the likes of Amazon (The Guardian, 2014). In a short space of time the tables have turned and these independent stores are now seeing off competition from chains such as Waterstones to secure accolades such as children’s bookseller of the year (The Guardian, 2016).
The Books Are My Bag campaign and Independent Bookshop Week have helped to raise the profile of independent bookshops, and the stores themselves have tapped in to the current focus on community, particularly in London – many of them are combined with a café and have become a real social space. They also understand the importance of social media, and know that good visual merchandising will lead to free marketing via Instagram.
Southwold Books is one of three independent-looking stores recently opened by Waterstones, with The Rye Bookshop and Harpenden Books being the other two. And it isn’t just large chains like Waterstones who are guilty of this; though Daunt Books are considered independent booksellers, they have a large number of stores – including some which do not bear the Daunt name. One has recently opened in my local area, and there is not a trace of the Daunt name to be found. The residents of Marlow are well aware that it is a Daunt store, and are clearly pleased to have a quality bookshop open in their town (I once had a conversation with a lady about how James Daunt had published her son’s book so of course she was pleased he was opening a store nearby – yes, it’s that kind of place), but it all feels a little underhand to me.
Don’t get me wrong, I am definitely of the opinion that a high street is better with a bookshop. I don’t mind in the slightest whether the store I’m in is a chain or independent, so long as it’s providing me with a reasonable selection of books. One thing which I do have a slight problem with is if that store is pretending to be something it is not.
The Guardian (2014) Independent bookshops in decline as buying habits change. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/feb/21/independent-bookshops-campaign
The Guardian (2016) Indie bookshops turn a new page to fight off threat from Amazon. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jul/16/independent-bookshops-edinburgh-publishing-amazon