Earlier this year, in the market town where I live, an independent bookshop opened. I was delighted. The proprietress, who I will call Sandie, had run other bookshops in the area, and was knowledgeable about and interested in books and reading. The bookshop was opposite my favourite cafe, in a little courtyard set back from the marketplace, and I enjoyed going there to browse, shop, and chat with Sandie. She was happy to order books for me, and to let me know by email when my orders arrived. We exchanged book recommendations and the whole experience felt very positive.
Then, after only a few months, things began to change. Part of the shop was restocked, not with books but with window blinds. Sandie was in the shop less and less often, replaced by a woman or a man, both perfectly pleasant but neither interested in books or reading. I asked which days Sandie was working but they were very vague and said it changed from week to week. When Sandie isn't there, neither is her laptop, so the only way they can check prices and delivery options for orders is by phone, which is time-consuming and they don't seem very keen to do it unless I insist. I ordered a book recently but Sandie didn't email to tell me it was in, so I rang the (mobile) number on her card, which had an automated answering message: 'This is the Vodafone voicemail for oh seven blah blah blah,' which I found offputting so I didn't leave a message. Instead, I went into the shop, found out from the stand-in woman that my book was indeed there, and presented my credit card, only to be told that they no longer took credit or debit cards and I would need to pay by cash or cheque. I'd been intending to use my credit card - we are in the inevitably expensive run-up to Christmas, after all - so I was not impressed. On further enquiry, the stand-in woman told me that the card machine had broken and wasn't being replaced, that they were losing sales as a result and that, in her view, Sandie had lost interest in the shop. I asked about the answerphone message on the mobile, and she said that was because they had two businesses running from the premises, the one with the window blinds and the one with the books. I didn't understand why that would stop them personalising their answerphone message: surely it would be possible to say 'this mobile takes messages for both X and Y'.
I ordered another book that day, and Sandie did email to tell me it was in. She apologised for the lack of facility for paying by card, and said the decision had been taken in an effort to cut costs. I went in to the shop this morning, hoping to see her and discuss the situation, but the stand-in man was there. He said gloomily that he'd drawn the short straw today. I asked him to tell Sandie I was sorry I'd missed her again, and he said she'd had to take some time off because she hadn't been well.
The thing is, I pay more for books in the bookshop than I would if I bought them online. I don't mind paying extra if I'm getting a good service from a bookseller who is interested in what they do. I do mind paying extra for a lousy service from people who would rather be somewhere else. In general, I believe that it's really important to support independent bookshops. But is there a limit to this? I run a business myself, and I know I need to make it as easy as possible for my clients to buy the services I provide. If I start making life more difficult for them, I will lose business; it's as simple as that.
I can't decide what to do. As far as I can see, the options are:
1. Carry on shopping there and put up with the lousy service and expensive books in order to support an independent bookseller.
2. Try to discuss the situation with Sandie by email (I'm not sure if this is a good idea if she's unwell, but I could write a gentle email to start with, enquiring after her health and asking whether she would like some feedback or not).
3. Go back to buying books online, thereby saving myself time, money and aggravation.