In the world of book buying there is a definite divide between the big chains – Amazon, Waterstones, etc – and the small independent or second hand bookshops. One on side of the divide, readers can buy books at low cost, but hand their money over to a large corporation. On the other, books are more expensive, but the whole experience of book buying comes into play – a more personal service, and a nicer atmosphere. Both readers and writers seem to prefer the latter.
Recently, Waterstones has been criticised for opening bookshops that are unbranded – that is, they don’t look like a typical Waterstones shop, and it’s likely that most people who went in wouldn’t realise that they were actually purchasing their book from the chain. At a glance, the shops look like quirky little independent retailers. It would appear that the whole experience around book buying matters more, or at least as much as, the actual book that is purchased. Waterstones has used this fact to their advantage, but it hasn’t been received well. If anything, people like to know where exactly their money is going.
Recently I visited Barter Books – for those who don’t know, this is a beautiful second hand book shop in the Northumberland town of Alnwick. Housed in an old railway station, it is full to the brim of books of every shape, size, age and genre. There are special editions costing hundreds of pounds, down to paperbacks on sale for £2 or £3. Fiction and non fiction, books for both children and adults… plus a coffee shop, space to sit and read next to the fire, and a toy train running on a loop round and round the ceiling above you.
I don’t go there as much as I’d like, but when I do go it’s for the experience as much as anything else. It doesn’t matter if you don’t buy anything (though I managed to leave with a respectable haul of 3 books). You never know what you’re going to find, and unless you go there with a specific title in mind to purchase, you could easily spend hours getting lost amongst the shelves, and still probably never fully explore everything on offer. Unless it’s a mass produced paperback, however, I wouldn’t say the prices are particularly cheap. But the bookish atmosphere is enough of an appeal for any book lover, as is the possibility of discovering a treasure on the shelves. While I was there I began to wonder – how would I feel if I found out that Barter Books was actually run by Waterstones, without me knowing it? Would I be happy enough that such a wonderful shop existed? How much does branding matter?