In November, 1936, George Orwell said that “the combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence”. And yet an intellectual revolution on the scale of the combine harvesters and artificial fertilizers has arisen in the literary world. First came Amazon, which sold cheap books to anywhere on Earth, an idea which, surely, would strike the death knell for booksellers the world over? It would seem not. There was one minor casualty in the guise of Borders, which soon realised that a Starbucks on every floor does not disguise the taste of over-priced books. It merely helped turn it into a reference library, where people pick a book they like, retreat to the café to peruse the novel and then, when closing time comes, replace the book and leave. In fact, this is the one thing that seems to have helped the independent bookseller; their hostility to their patrons, the fact that the only place to sit down is not a nice, comfy sofa but a teetering stack of John Buchan folios. So, with Waterstones still on the high street and the reality of Black Books lurking slightly off the well-beaten track, it would seem that Orwell was right. No great changes can “squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence”. If only it was as easy as that.
In 2007, Amazon launched their most recent and deadly weapon against the independent bookseller. The Amazon Kindle, which does for real books what the internal combustion engine has done for horse drawn carriages. It provides cheap, compact and, above all, sterile books – mechanical, charmless shadows of their former selves. Within 20 years or so, books, newspapers, magazines, all of these things, will become quaint, boring, old-fashioned things. Things that don’t belong in the modern age, like steam trains or record players. And, as such, the purveyors of such antiques will have to go. This has been shown by the recent rush on Kindles over last Christmas, and a few months later, Waterstones became so unprofitable that its owners will have to sell it. Soon, it will become such a financial black hole that no-one will want it, and when Waterstones goes, the small bookshops will follow. Because in this brave new world, who will want to visit a musty old bookshop when they could simply get the book mailed to them or, worse still, have it downloaded straight into their tablet for a pittance or even, dare I say it, for free? Unfortunately, and I feel like a traitor for saying this, George Orwell was wrong. The man who has always been seen as something of a prophet, predicting the surveillance state and the rise of the superpowers, could not foresee the literary equivalent of the combine harvester: Amazon.