With regard to buying books there are a lot of times when I simply want to be a browser, rather than using one. Amazon and others have done us the great favour of bringing book-buying right into our living rooms, with delivery times which are simply staggering, but there is surely much more to buying a book than clicking a button. A recent experience in Belfast drove this home forcibly.
Independent booksellers in Northern Ireland's capital are few and far between. The great weight of Waterstones has sent out ripples on our side of the pond just as much as on the Mainland, with many smaller stores closing their doors, and ending colourful chapters in local bookselling. Two notable exceptions for me are The Bookshop at Queens and The Evangelical Bookshop. In a sense these stores form a set of brackets around my interest in books, from the eclectic world of secular publishing to the depth and beauty of Reformed theology, from the broad mindedness of the academy to the clarity and honesty of biblical thought. A visit to both on one day is a rare treat indeed.
The Bookshop at Queens will always hold a special place in my heart. I worked there for around three years while I was a student, and for me it will always be associated with the discovery of things previously unknown. From the jazz that streamed through the shop on Saturdays to the titles I discovered on a wide variety of subjects hitherto unknown, the Bookshop was a place for maturing into the world of work and the world of reading.
On my most recent visit I found two things particularly satisfying. One was the variety and volume of stock, and the other the expertise of staff. Whether it was the fascinating array of Irish interest/history titles, the brilliant selection of bargain priced books on the centre table or the literal half-wall of English literature classics, this is a bookshop which is worthy of a morning's walk around. With the intellectual evacuation of Easons into a slightly Irish feeling WH Smith, it is so satisfying to find a place which rewards a good rummage and turns up unsought for books which arrest attention.
My conversation with Peter (a former colleague) also drove home for me the rare privilege of being able to speak to a bookseller about books in depth. We live in a commercial world where the computer database has overidden the employee knowledge base, where enquiries are normally met with the pallid-glow of 'I don't know', as search terms bring sparse rewards. But as I spoke with Peter about a wide variety of literatures, it was genuinely enriching and informative to get his take on the comparative abilities of Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Tolstoy and Joyce (to name but four). Here was a bookseller engaged with his work, and informed about what a reader might want to know; offering non-patronising advice on what may or may not be of interest. There is, in the final analysis, a world of difference between a bookseller and a book vendor.
The Evangelical Bookshop is no less satisfying. This is an unpretentious platform for the sale of Reformed literature. In its auspicious history the 'Evangelical' has refused (by decision or default) to conform to the Christianity-light environment which all too easily creeps into Christian retail. One will not find a variety of Christian nick-nacks for the home, Bible embossed merchandise, or anything else from the smorgasbord of tackiness which often populates Christian bookshops. This is truly a bookshop, with John Grier honouring his father's legacy of providing serious reading materials to the people of Northern Ireland. As always the bargain table provided plenty of temptation (which I just managed to resist), a conversation with one of the booksellers (Colin) about academic study was brief and enlightening, and the clientele's interaction with staff and with one another was genuinely entertaining. Of particular note was a Scottish academic's encounter with an American academic. Having heard his trans-Atlantic counterpart's list of qualifications in Engineering and Theology, the Scottish gentlemen replied 'Well my wife has always told me I'm as thick as concrete!'. You don't get that kind of interaction (or meeting of two worlds) in the review sections on Amazon!
The bargain and secondhand section at the back of the bookshop is a delight as well. I picked up a Banner title for half price, and when the book I was searching for (The Genius of Puritanism by Peter Lewis) was found to be out of stock it was promptly ordered - arriving at my home two days later. I always leave the Evangelical bookshop with a sense of fulfilment, as well as a slight sense of depression at all the books I will never have time to read.
I don't know what the future will ultimately be for independent booksellers, but I do hope that by the time our children are old enough to want to choose books for themselves establishments like these will still exist. I would hate for their only experience of book buying to be in front of a screen. For me there is a simple pleasure in walking past stacks of books, and finding oneself surprised at what has been purchased, rather than 'searching' for specifics and always finding the exact title.
Bookshops are to online buying what a walk in a meadow is to visiting a garden centre. Both places might have the same stock, but only one can provide surprising scents, combinations and arrangements, as well as the thrill of simply sampling new and unlooked-for things.