Independent Bookselling in 2022
by Jonathan Moreland
Independent bookselling has traversed an uncertain path over the last two decades. Things were not looking good between 1999 and 2009, when the rate of closure was around 27% (almost two per week). There are litany of causes and reasons for such an intensive reduction in the market (the 2008 economic crash, the rise of Amazon, for example), but since then, many independent bookshops like October Books in Southampton, have thus far managed to weather the storm, proving that the cultural and social value of independent bookshops is not directly tied to the prices on dust jackets, or the amount of books on the shelf. But how exactly does an independent bookshop like ours – and so many others – manage to compete with a retail space in which customers can find and purchase essentially any book that has ever been printed, from the comfort of their own home? One answer is curation.
Curation is perhaps the most essential element of a bookseller’s role. In simple terms, it is the process of deciding what to sell, vs what not to sell. To plumb a bit deeper however, curating the shelves of a bookshop is as much about who we are as it is about what we want to represent. A large portion of this curatorial work is founded in our relationships with our publishers. Publishing houses themselves are in a constant state of curation, too. Roberto Calasso notes that it is the publisher’s role to “give form to a plurality of books as though they were the chapters of a single book.” This is particularly true of contemporary independent publishers like The Dalkey Archive Press, Fitzcarraldo Editions, and 3TimesRebel.
If this plurality is true of publishers, it is similarly the responsibility of a bookseller to provide a curatorial and contextualising space, not only between titles as in the case of publishers, but also between disparate publishers themselves. The key to curation in this sense is to create a vibrant and self-sustaining cultural ecosystem, wherein the titles are in conversation with one another: Pluto Press might prioritise non-fiction centred around radical social issues, yet these same tenets can be found in the fictional output of a publisher like Galley Beggar Press, who promote radical approaches to fiction as a form in and of itself.
As a bookseller, our role becomes easier when we find those smaller publishers who we trust, support, and believe in. It is our responsibility to provide a space and create a context in which smaller, independent presses have an opportunity to thrive among the established giants. As long as we support a wide range of these publishers, the specificity of their offerings becomes a real asset, and goes a long way toward building the cultural ecosystem which is so important to a small business like October Books.
Independent bookshops survive because of the communities that gather around them. We are our publishers, the books on our shelves, and the people who read them.
 Callaso, Roberto, The Art of the Publisher, Penguin (London, 2015), pg. 9