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Books Are My Bag

18 September 13 words: James Walker
If you tolerate this then your high street will be next...

A couple of surprising facts for you in the Amazon era: 56% of all book buying decisions are made by consumers in a bookshop, with 40% of sales coming directly from high street bookshops. These are heartening facts, particularly given that in 2012, 7% independent book shops disappeared from the high street, with the total down a third since 2005. One independent still going strong and firmly in the heart of the local community is the Bookcase in Lowdham. 
 
“Books Are My Bag is really a very big collaboration between booksellers, publishers, authors, and, of course, customers,” explained Bookcase owner Jane Streeter. This is evident in the display window which is full of notes detailing customers’ earliest memories of reading. It creates much debate and it’s not long before two customers are getting very excited because they have both selected the same book as their childhood memory.  
 
I’ve come along to put my money where my mouth is and ask Jane to recommend a book. She suggests Jon McGregor’s first short story collection, This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You, which won the East Midlands Book Award. It’s a good choice but I’ve read it, so I ask her for something else. “Try Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being, it was voted best book by the Independent booksellers and has made the Booker shortlist.” Sold. Better still I get a free book as well, donated by one of the many publishers supporting the scheme.       
 
Jane pops both books inside the free bag given out with each purchase. It has big orange text on the outside, reminiscent of a certain no-frills airline, though is the brainchild of Britain’s most iconic creative agency. She explains how the campaign came about while offering up some cake and a glass of bubbly. “It actually comes from a conversation I had when I was President of the Booksellers Association with Gail Rebuck, who is the Chair of Penguin Random House. We were talking about how to get more discussion about why bookshops are important and she, through other links, felt it was something that Saatchi might be willing to get behind.” Charles Saatchi is the Patron of BAMB and his agency, along with many others, have given their time for free. “So it all sort of stemmed from that little conversation.” 
 
The idea driving the campaign is “tapping into this feeling that we mustn’t forget how important the high streets are and getting people to physically go into a shop, have conversations, and engage with other people. Books are the ideal vehicle for doing that.” It’s certainly not possible to have a meaningful conversation with checkout staff about books (“I just work here”), yet supermarkets are arguably where books are most visible to the passing public. This raises serious ethical questions regarding access to literature as only the big hitters can afford to fill the shelves of Tescos, hence the endless celeb biogs.  
 
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Dramatist Nick Wood (left) and a disreputable hack (middle) purchase books to support Jane Streeter 

“Supermarkets selling books is part of the bookselling landscape now and that’s fine because the more books that are out there the more that people can see them. But we need to have choice and places where people can go and feel comfortable about talking about books. Books are solitary yet also about sharing ideas. I think this ethic is spreading across different types of retail and is needed or else we’ll have these homogenous high streets. Literature, in all its forms, should be as physical as possible.” 
 
What could help encourage independent businesses to start up and offer an alternative to the supermarkets? “There’s obvious issues around rent and contracts. There’s also a problem with charity shops getting better rates as well. I’d like to see bookshops seen as a valued part of the community and rates reflecting this as well.”
 
Bookselling isn’t a particularly lucrative business and therefore we need to radically think how rates are set on the high street. An independent bookshop is never going to be able to compete with large corporations like KFC and McDonalds, both of whom are doing very well out of the recession, so perhaps it’s time to see a more ethical relationship emerge between rent and profit. I realise that this all sounds very utopian but Jane is quick to point out, “utopia should be strived for. There should be a lot more imaginative thinking about premises and how a mix of shops work together rather than say a whole street of charity shops. Margins are notoriously low on books but people do it because they love it.” 
 
The emphasis on culture and in turn community is important here, sentiments echoed by author Neil Gaiman: “A town isn't a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it's got a bookstore it knows it's not fooling a soul.” And when the bookstores, Post Office and pub have gone, what’s left? “The campaign is much more than just let’s talk about books it’s about how the world will look for future generations. People who make decisions need to really think about this. I’m hoping as this campaign grows it may lead to changes.” 
 
Today is cause for another celebration. The Bookcase has been trading for an impressive seventeen years. The key to its survival is down to being versatile and listening. “Be willing to say yes to any offer that comes along your way in terms of what people want you to do or to see. We try to be all things to all people, a one stop. We don’t just sell books we sell gifts and tickets, acting as a box office for theatre, we also supply schools and are willing to provide reading groups. Spreading ourselves out and going out into the community rather than expecting everyone to come here.” 
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Jane Streeter goes more orange than Kerry Katona

 
As for the highlight of the past seventeen years. “The highlights are more general than specific, such as the support of the local community here in Lowdham. People love having a bookshop in their village and you really feel it. The Lowdham Book Festival, an offshoot of this, is also special as well and has made the shop mean more. There’s smaller everyday highlights as well, such as every time I open this door and see all of these books and think: I own a bookshop! I can’t think of anything else I’d like to do.” 
 

The Bookcase, 50 Main Street, Lowdham,  Nottinghamshire NG14 7BE. Tel: 0115 9664143 or visit their website

Books Are My Bag website

For a similar campaign promoting literacy and libraries, please see the Dawn of the Unread website 

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