Saturday, 12 December 2009

Independent Bookshop Dilemma

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.

Any thoughts?


Pat said...

Sadly I think it is time to turn to Amazon - or the like. You don't have to put up with lousy service - particularly infuriating when the banks are hastening the demise of the cheque book. I'm down to my last cheque blast them.
I don't think it would help Sandie if you pursued it as she is probable well aware of the decline of everything and you have tried to support her. Just MO.
Hard-hearted Hannah.

HelenMHunt said...

I suppose if she's genuinely seriously ill that might explain some of it. Although there's no excuse for the 'stand-in' staff to be so unhelpful.

You could go back to ordering on-line, but try to support small presses and independent publishers by ordering directy from them and not from Amazon. Although obviously that depends a bit on what you want to order.

Gemma Noon said...

I think the idea is to support independent bookstores when they are doing a good job - and quite frankly, this place isn't. I think you've given this bookstore more than enough support. If they don't value your custom, then they deserve to lose your loyalty.

If you don't fancy buying from Amazon then where possible buy direct from the publishers. As HelenMHunt said, support the inde pubs as much as you can by buying from them direct!

Debs said...

I think you shouldn't feel you have to support Sandie's shop if she isn't and the support staff did say she was losing interest in the place before she was ill, so I'd do as the others suggest.

It's such a shame that something so exciting has fallen by the wayside like it has.

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

Another way of thinking about it: It does sound rather unlikely that the shop will survive if it carries on like this. And it's not your job - or within your power - to single-handedly save it.

You could try the option of emailing and enquiring after her health, and asking if she'd like feedback. But don't give it unless you really think she'd welcome it. Sounds like it might be too late.

There's a great service called (run by a very lovely friend of mine) which provides a portal for indie book shops all over the UK to sell books online, to then be picked up instore by the purchasers. Sandie might be interested in using it.

Fionnuala Kearney said...

It's sad, isn't it? You want to support a local independant and a noble idea it is too, but if it was anything other than a bookshop, would you put up with the bad service? Probably not but it is a shame...

LilyS said...

I think sending an email would be a nice idea. I'm sure she would appreciate your well wishes and feedback.

Queenie said...

Thanks, everyone, for help and advice.
Not so much Hard-hearted Hannah as Practical Pat, I think!
Helen, that's a really good point about the small presses and independent publishers; would you believe I'd never thought of that? *blush*
Gemma, I'm on the case now!
Debs and Fionnuala, it is a real shame, and I feel very sad about it.
BS and Lily, thanks for your suggestions.
Here's what I've done: I checked out that link, BS, and her shop isn't registered with the site, so I sent her an email saying I was sorry to hear she'd been ill, I hoped she'd be better soon, and by the way did she know about this site which might be useful. I ended up by wishing her a happy Christmas and New Year. I'll probably pop into the shop some time in early 2010 and see how things are going. And I shall go back to buying books online with a clear conscience.
Thanks, everyone!

Anonymous said...

somewhat late in the day; I did do what you did though in my case as the access - which into the shop was fine - was difficult due to clutter and it was hard to motivate the staff to help. And I'm afraid I do think that if the access is bad staff should help wheelchair users, and no, I won't always have someone with me...

womagwriter said...

Nothing annoys me more than poor or indifferent service, and I'm afraid that would be it for me - I'd be back to Amazon. You can't save the bookshop single-handedly, and do you really want to put up with the don't-care attitude of the staff for the rest of your book-buying life? What a shame it's gone this way, but it's not your fault - it's largely down to Sandie.