By Boyd Tonkin
Sometimes, even a soppy Richard Curtis rom-com can serve a social purpose. Of all the closures of independent stores that have left hundreds of British high streets a book-free wilderness, none has given rise to more celebrity keening than the imminent demise of The Travel Bookshop. The west London specialist outlet was famously rebuilt as the set for Hugh Grant’s nervous romance with Julia Roberts in Notting Hill. Now, its looming departure has become a symbol of the town-by-town, neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood extinction of non-chain or non-supermarket book retailers.
New research from the data-collection giant Experian focuses the mind as sharply as Dr Johnson’s sentence of death by hanging. The total of independent bookstores in Britain has more or less halved since 2005, from over 4,000 to 2,178. According to Experian, 580 towns have no bookshop at all.
In a fine piece of analysis for the trade bible The Bookseller, The Travel Bookshop’s owner Simon Gaul identifies each element in the “perfect storm” that has wrecked his sector. They include the suicidal abandonment in the 1990s of the price-maintaining Net Book Agreement; the shifts in planning law that kowtowed to the demands of supermarkets and other out-of-town warehouse managers at the expense of high streets; and of – course – the boom in online retail.
I would only add the extraordinary self-destructive impasse into which the British book trade has backed itself. This encapsulates a far wider failure of political vision and will. Unlike countries in Continental Europe, the UK will not protect bookshops as a special class of cultural asset whose value justifies intervention in the market for rents, leases and so forth.