By MICHAEL CAINES
When I last picked up a copy of the London Bookshop Map a couple of years ago, it listed some eighty-seven independent bookshops, of which sixteen were south of the river. The new edition is due to be published on Thursday and seems set to list twenty more shops; at least a couple of those formerly listed for South London have closed in the past year, however, for the inevitable, predictable reasons: Amazon and the rising rents or business rates (so much for government lending small businesses a hand).
For local idlers, this meant saying goodbye to a fine place for browsing/procrastinating, hunting out the novel you didn't know you wanted (eat your virtual heart out, Amazon), and losing yourself in a small maze of tall shelves, some of them reassuringly crowned with hardback "non-movers" (Hugh Walpole and Henry Treece, say), others offering the occasional surprise – eg, my last purchase (or the last I'm owning up to), The Unwriter & other poems by Gerard Woodward, Sycamore Press, 1989.
Bargains aside, the getting lost was certainly part of the fun. "Some people seem to enjoy the business of hunting out books as much as they enjoy reading them", a wise man once said. That's perfectly trueas long as you can take "hunting out" as a euphemism. Bumbling around bookshops has to be the slowest form of hunting on record – children can grow up knowing that their parents are somewhere out there, in Hay-on-Wye or Cecil Court – unless, that is, the entire stock has to go in the next forty-eight hours. At that point, there can be what passes, in bookshop terms, for a feeding frenzy.
I suppose I saw exactly that during my last visit to My Back Pages. We eleventh-hour bargain-hunters clogged the maze. The tall shelves stood in unfamiliar positions, preparing themselves for departure. One man had brought a shopping cart on wheels with him. The history and biography sections were permanently occupied. American fiction was proving troublesome, being the most attractive feature in a narrow central aisle.
It must have been interesting to see the old place so busy, from the shopkeeper's point of view. I paid up and said goodbye to him – and to Doctor Johnson's cat:
No doubt worse things happen both at sea and in SW12 than the death of a bookshop; I suppose its patrons will just have to find other ways to procrastinate.
(NB Of this year's earlier closures, the Lion and Unicorn, the children's bookshop in Richmond, est. 1977, a reliable source tells me that "customers" would go in to ask for advice and handle the merchandise, even to photograph the covers for reference, before buying online. Since people rightly want to try before they buy, a real bookshop has to stand in for the virtual one – what are the chances of Amazon paying a kind of finder's fee? Ah – slim, you say . . . .)