It has recently been suggested that Amazon has surrendered in its war on booksellers. As the number of independent bookshops in the UK has risen, Amazon, known for its aggressive discounting, has increased its prices. I have long relied on Amazon; until 2022 it had been many years since I bought a book anywhere else. But now I don’t think I could buy a book from Amazon – or from any online retailer – again. It is not rising prices that have changed my mind, however, but one real, bricks-and-mortar bookshop.
When I was a child my mother, who worked with dyslexic children, almost gave up on teaching me to read. Every time she sat me down on her lap, trying to show me “kicking k”, I would scream and run away. I only got through the phonetic alphabet because my sister, who was eight at the time, begged her to keep trying, so that I might one day get to enjoy the imaginary worlds she had discovered through children’s books. From then on, summers were spent lying on my back in our dusty attic, running to the bottom of the garden every now and then to check if there were fairies there, as Enid Blyton had suggested there might be. Under my childhood bed there is still a stash of A4 ruled paper with big curly words scrawled across its lines about normal girls who turned out to be princesses, and boys who turned out to be wizards.
But as a teenager words ceased to be an easy means of expression. My undiagnosed ADHD seemed to bleed into more parts of my brain as I went through secondary school, and a page could no longer contain my fizzy and fidgeting mind. A teenage rebel without a cause, I decided that in protest at what I perceived as the strictness of my parents, I shouldn’t sit at home and read, because it was the kind of thing a stereotypical Asian teenager would do. At school I hated how Shakespeare, with his circuitous turns of phrase, was foisted upon us as the overlord of the English literary canon. When my English teacher heard me say as much, I was told that such heresy ruled me out of doing English A-Level.
Little changed in my twenties. Amazon was supposed to be the place we bought books, so I’d download something to the Kindle app – but swiping through the pages like they were matches on Tinder felt unpleasant and detached. Borrowing from the library, meanwhile, was like an obstacle course in which one had to read quickly and carefully to avoid getting fined. (I’d hold library books gingerly between my fingers, so as not to stain or crumple them.) In the vast stretches of time where I didn’t see people during the pandemic, picking up a book made me feel even more isolated. Friends seemed to calmly swap socialising for books, but for me reading was such a pale shadow of real life that it just seemed tragic.
But earlier this year, at a loss for what to do on a cold Saturday morning after playing tag rugby, I found myself in BookBar, a shop and social space in Islington, north London, run by and catering for millennial readers. It felt inviting because it had 80s funk and soul music playing, and coffee percolating, in the background. The room was warmly lit with grape-coloured shelves and aquamarine tables – unlike Foyles in the city centre with its six floors of ceiling-high bookstacks. There weren’t aloof types in baggy trousers and big glasses who eyed you up, unwilling to help (embodiments of what I find so alienating about literature). Here the staff smiled and didn’t expect you to know exactly what you wanted to read – instead, they started by asking what you had liked in the past. Laid out in front of me were books by writers I could relate to: Naoise Dolan and Megan Nolan rather than Dostoevsky.
I felt proud to buy a book which I myself had picked from the shelf. At the till it was wrapped in tissue paper, so much more pleasingly tactile than taupe Amazon packaging. So I came back the next week – I had actually been looking forward to discussing my next purchase – and then the week after too. The bookshop reminded me a little of the Central Perk I’d always dreamed might exist in London, but centred around books: I’d sometimes find myself across the table from someone I vaguely knew from university, and find out about what they were reading, or get a recommendation from someone as we found ourselves reaching for the same book. The bookshop has made reading no longer feel lonely or isolating, rather something that can coexist with companionship, that can expand my world instead of contracting it.
Perhaps it’s obvious that human booksellers can intuit what I want to read better than an algorithm. But I also think it’s the non-judgemental spirit of modern bookshops such as this that has made me relaxed enough to let go of my aspirations to tick off “must-reads”, which made books feel like homework and meant I read nothing. Slowly, I am filling a bookshelf at home with eclectic books that represent me, that I have actually read – quirky, coral-coloured paperbacks – rather than Booker winners that tend to give me little joy. Which is why my Amazon Prime account will now be used exclusively for last-minute purchases of lightbulbs and dishwasher tablets.
This article appears in the 06 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Last Days of Boris Johnson