Endangered species ... bookstores need to cater for those readers that revel in the serendipity and promise of the great (in-store) discovery. Photo: Patrick Cummins
A writer friend of mine recently embarked on a pre-Christmas book tour, seeking to fill a few extra stockings with copies of his latest work. He returned in a state of mild despair. I asked him what the problem was: hadn't the punters turned up? But it wasn't a lack of customers that had perturbed him, so much as a lack of bookshops. In Leeds, for example, there were three universities - but only one Waterstones.
Of course, the book trade's obituary has been written often enough that the results could probably be collected into a decent-sized volume. But some kind of tipping point does seem to have been reached. It was reported this week that the number of bookshops in Britain has halved in seven years. Partly, that's a result of the tough economy. But it's also due to the fact that we're moving our reading from page to screen, as the piles of iPads and Kindles under the nation's Christmas trees demonstrated.
I can't be the only person who - having issued confident pronouncements about how the e-book would never catch on, how the printed paperback was an unsurpassable triumph of technology - now finds himself devouring holiday reading on a tablet computer, and blessing the saving in luggage space. Admittedly, I still buy plenty of hard copies as well as electronic, but even then the transactions are online, either via Amazon or the vast network of second-hand dealers . Even when I do visit an old-fashioned bookshop, I often find myself looking at the price on the book, wincing, and firing up my mobile to see how much less the internet is charging.
Having spent much of my childhood (and adulthood) in libraries, I'd be a fool if I said that I don't, on some level, consider the number of bookshops in a country to be a good index for its level of civilisation. But I'd be a greater fool if I didn't admit that I've played my part in their decline, or that there doesn't seem to be much hope of reversing it, given that the cost of running a bricks-and-mortar outfit in the middle of the high street, and hiring a bunch of English graduates to man it, will always outweigh the price of a large warehouse on an industrial estate and a giant pile of stamps.
So is there a way to save the bookshop, apart from nationalising the big chains and running them on a pro bono basis? The most obvious solution is to head upmarket, whether by catering to the true bibliomane rather than the passing punter, or by making your shop more of a ''destination'' via readings and gourmet coffee.
Bookshops also have one unmatchable advantage over the internet, and that is the opportunity they offer for serendipity. Theodore Dalrymple wrote a lovely essay a few weeks ago about the pleasure of browsing the shelves of a dusty second-hand store, but the same holds true even if the spines are uncreased. A good bookshop (rather like a good newspaper or magazine) maximises the chances of delightful discovery, of emerging with more than you intended.
Whenever I was passing through Oxford, I used to find excuses - until it joined the list of the departed - to visit the bookshop set up by the team behind QI. Its sections were organised by (loose) theme rather than topic or name: as a result, I invariably found, and bought, books that would never have otherwise crossed my radar.
Another approach is to focus on books as objects, to produce editions so wonderful to hold (and behold) that an e-book pales by comparison. The actor Neil Pearson has described his own passion for rare editions; while I don't have his budget, or the type of mania that leads people to buy, for example, a copy of Sachin Tendulkar's autobiography impregnated with the batsman's blood (such a book really was published), I still appreciate a decent hardback as much as anyone, and am willing to pay for the privilege.
The speed with which bookshops are vanishing from our high streets suggests a process that is not so much Darwinian as apocalyptic. Given what happened to the record shops, few would put money on the idea of a mass-market bookshop still competing with the online giants in a decade's time: the way we read books is changing too fast, as is the way we buy them. But it would be a tragedy if they vanished - and with them, the age-old joy of being able to lose yourself in a good bookshop.