In the current publishing climate, with anxiety over the role of the physical book and the physical bookstore, the literary community is constantly vigilant. Every week, it seems, brings a new voice to the debate waged in blogs, newspapers, and magazines alike: what is the future of the bookstore? How can the public support them? Authors like Ann Patchett and Mark Forsyth, Jen Campbell and Bill Bryson – all prominent voices in the literary community – have weighed in. Their answer has been, overwhelmingly and perhaps against all economic odds, that in the face of industry change, there is still a place for the printed word and its bookshelf-lined marketplace.
While pundits love proclaiming literary doom and gloom, the bookstore is alive and kicking. It can be seen in Buzzfeed clickbait, “16 Bookstores You Have To See Before You Die” in the pages of the Guardian and the Times (of both the London and the New York persuasion), in the social media success of the hilarious @Waterstones and @WstonesOxfordSt twitter accounts, and here, in Oxford, with the success of Blackwells, Waterstones, Oxfam, and the multitude of other tiny, independent dives where students can burrow themselves in a corner or else dart in quickly to pick up a used copy of an old favourite.
But under the pressure of budgeting, time management, and the sheer volume of social opportunities, perhaps Oxford students aren’t taking full advantage of these resources. The Oxford community at large absolutely supports its bookstores, but the student body’s interactions with them seem to end with the acquisition of textbooks. It’s not exactly an undergraduate destination, which is a pity. Perhaps the relationship between student and bookstore is worth investigating and reevaluating.
For many students, it’s a matter of thrift. Even with rewards cards and “3 for 2” discounts, there’s little incentive to purchase a book with the Bodleian only a short walk away. With college libraries, faculty libraries, and the whole Bod available, many students feel that we’ve already been given everything we need. But, as essayist and author Mark Forsyth aptly notes, the importance of the bookstore is not that it gives you what you need. It gives you what you didn’t know you needed. Oxford’s libraries are wonderful, but they are not designed to be browsed for fun. SOLO is not there to tell what novel to read next, or what new article about your field is generating lots of buzz at the moment. SOLO’s only job is to get library books into the hands of the students who need them. SOLO retrieves rather than introduces.
This is where the bookstore comes in. For a population living from one reading list to the next, the Oxford bookstore community represents the reminder that reading can, and should, be fun as well. In such an intellectually vibrant town, they remind us that our fields of study are still frontiers. Walk into the cozy, well lit, calming atmosphere of Blackwell’s, and on the table – is it magic, or fate? – is the new novel that will inspire countless student essays in fifty years time. And, most likely, there’s an author event scheduled as well, offering students access to voices they wouldn’t hear in their weekday lectures. Last term, Blackwell’s hosted a casual discussion on “Will Bookstores Exist in 100 Years’ Time?” featuring bookstore advocates ranging from publishing executives, booksellers, authors, and cultural critics. The fact that such an event could exist supports the consensus that bookstores will remain. The bookstore, as an alternative to Oxford’s establishment, offers a platform for new voices to be heard, either in author events or in the “hand-selling” of new works.
This exposure to new voices, contemporary innovation creates an atmosphere of joyful exploration, making Oxford’s bookstores vital for students. As both a student and a bookseller myself, and having seen the decline in student visits to bookstores in search of “fun reading” at my bookstore back home, I have seen how important it is to remind students that bookstores exist as cultural centers, as places of fun and excitement rather than just as required reading dispensaries. At their best, bookstores offer a respite from rigorous curricula and the established classics found on reading lists. This breath of fresh air, this reminder that great new things are happening, is an incredible motivator. As an antidote to exhaustion and cynicism, Oxford students have a lot to gain from even the shortest visit to these homes of “unassigned reading.”