The Beauty of Independent Bookshops


Every now and then you come across a business that does something a little bit special. Something that moves you, inspires you and shows you that small can indeed be a beautiful thing.

This was the case when I visited Hungerford Bookshop recently (disclosure – it was to plan a poetry reading but this post is not sponsored). Unlike Waterstones which appears to be giving ever greater shelf-space to celebrity autobiographies (I tried to think of another big bookseller but WH Smith no longer counts as it has diversified into causing nervous breakdowns through self-service checkout machines that try to foist Terry’s Chocolate Oranges upon every shopper), here was an independent bookshop that not only had an art section containing more than just colouring books for adults, but also had something on offer that delighted, surprised and charmed me.

Stacked neatly on the counter, and wrapped carefully in brown paper, was a small pile of free books. The only clue as to the book you were going to take home was a neatly written summary offering just enough information to draw you in.

Here’s the one I chose:

“A contemporary fable. A pack of dogs are granted the power of human thought – but what will it do to them?”

And here’s the book it turned out to be:

fifteen dogs

A story I’d not come across before, by an author I’d not heard of, and it turned out to be a book I couldn’t put down. It contains Greek gods placing bets in bars, talking dogs and unexpected twists – who wouldn’t want to read it?

Had the bookshop stacked the books unwrapped and called it a ‘discount pile’, I probably wouldn’t have sifted through. Had they put “Buy One Get One Half-Price” stickers on them I’d have valued them less. But the careful wrapping and time taken to boil the essence of these books down to a sentence or two showed me that whilst the books were free, the owners of the shop cared enough about them to treat them beautifully. So perhaps they were good. And perhaps I should take one. And perhaps this is precisely the kind of shop I should trust to introduce me to some interesting new authors.

Taking a commercial view, yes the book was free but that little act sold me (and I suspect lots of other customers) on a number of fronts:

  1. They get their audience because they behave like their audience (they love books – quite possibly enough to sniff the print *ahem*)
  2. They are innovative and have figured out a way to offer something that the ‘big guys’ do not, with the kind of finesse and presentation that the big guys would not (and perhaps don’t need to?) invest in.
  3. They have found a way to connect and communicate with their customers that is subtle, engaging and (because I have a thing about handwriting) emotional. This is really hard to do sincerely if you don’t love your product.

Because of all these things, I will be back there again, I will spend money with them, I will trust their judgement and recommend them to my friends in posts just like this.

Small businesses (especially independent bookshops), can be beautiful. And in this instance, very, very smart. I hope I find some more.


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