I did something unusual today. I didn’t buy a book from Amazon.
Not that I buy a book every day from Amazon: I mean that I decided to buy a book, but to order it in from my local Christian bookshop.
Almost certainly it will cost more. But the Christian bookshop is a funny thing. That’s because it isn’t really just a bookshop.
A friend gave me the name of the manager of my local one at Christmas, and I’ve popped in and introduced myself. Suddenly I find myself connected to a network of people who know people, or know of someone. Today I wanted to learn of someone connected to me who was working in the church in a town in the south of England, in order to help someone. The lady knew of someone. For the managers of these places effectively function as an information exchange.
The pastoral role of the Christian bookshop is invisible unless you know that it is there. Yet this too is critical — you can go in, and find people to talk to. The churches themselves — I mean real churches — are lamentably bad at working together in a single small town, and the common need of their members for books means that the bookshop acts as a centre, a place where notices are displayed and people congregate.
Some bookshops take it a step further and add on a coffee shop. St Aldates bookshop in Oxford ca. 1980 did just that. It was very cramped, but then students don’t mind that at all. I often went there as a convenient place to meet.
Christian bookshops came into being in the 60’s and 70’s because bookshops and news agents would not stock popular Christian paperback books or publications. You could order them, but this involved a long wait, no chance of browsing and often was frankly a faff.
Consequently the publishers started to set up retail outlets where their wares could be displayed. Since Christians always wanted the books of Michael Green or David Watson, they naturally became information exchanges.
The convenience of internet shopping means that it will usually be quicker and cheaper to buy a book at Amazon. That was not the case back in the day, since the Net Book Agreement standardised book prices anyway.
So the problem is that the modern Christian bookshop has no real economic basis. The publishers are finding them unviable. They can now sell their books through Amazon.
Yet the bookshop is needed. Indeed if you want some advice on books to buy — as I did today — what use is Amazon?
I don’t know what the answer is, I admit. Let us pray that God finds a way around this. Change is inevitable; but not at the price of wiping out the bookshop.