But readers need to understand what they do when they enter a bookshop. Unless you go in specifically to place a special order for a title, you're going in looking for ideas, for inspiration. The smaller the bookshop, the more likely you are to be given suggestions, have a discussion with the owner or manager, and leave with something tailored to your needs.
Great. But that means that your choice is limited, indeed by the very process of passing through the shop's front door, you've narrowed your selection of books to the owner's choice. If the owner doesn't like the book, or has never heard of it, you won't be leaving with it, that's for sure. One or two of the newer independent bookshops in Edinburgh (at least there are some) are really too small not to be guilty of choosing the customer's reading for them. I was in one recently where the owner has no chance of having any book I'd be looking for. But if that's what the customer wants, fine.
On the other hand, huge shops like Waterstones carry huge numbers of titles, and a customer who can't find what they were looking for will leave feeling very disappointed. They might not get help, they might not feel particularly valued, but they've a fighting chance of finding the book.
It's a difficult balance. And when you throw in the fact that a surprising number of these independents are really disorganised about settling their bills promptly with small publishers, then customers can see that the bigger stores have something to offer, too. Large distributors like Gardners and Bertrams take big cuts of the book prices, but at least bookshops that deal with them do so efficiently. A little money is better than nothing. Even the beast Amazon – which creams off a shocking 33% from the cover price of a book – actually pays over in good time. By contrast I once had to drive a round trip of 50 miles to demand money from a bookseller who had ordered (and quickly) sold two of our books but then failed to pay for a year, ignoring repeated requests.
There are good, supportive independents, but at their heart in every case is an individual who is genuinely committed to doing their best for everyone. These people are real unsung heroes. But all it takes is a small change in personnel somewhere and it all goes pear-shaped. In the end, a bookshop is only as good as the person at its heart.