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Against Independent Shops
PARAMOUNT Books is an irritating little book store located just off of Manchester Central’s Northern Quarter, but it is hardly unique in this sense. Approach it, and you will immediately be assaulted by a flood of Jazz music which comes from a little Tannoy speaker placed above its door. You would be forgiven for interpreting this as an invitation. In reality, it is an ostentatious display, a sort of public onanism designed to signal the proprietor's taste, and he lets it spill into the streets with the same wanton abandon as a 17th century maid emptying shit from her chamber pot.
Before you enter, you will notice a hastily scribbled but authoritative notice on the door which instructs you to place a surgical mask on before entering. Should you find yourself without one, you are given directions to a nearby mobile phone accessory shop, and set the humiliating task of entering there and purchasing one.
Your entrance ticket bought and equipped, you are ready to enter the bookshop, which at this stage you can only imagine to be a place of unparalleled hygiene. Not so. As soon as you open the door, the first thing you will notice is the smell of mould. This is not the sweetly smelling mould which books often produce, but the sort you might find in a Swansey council house. Books are strewn here and there — piled up on the floor, bundled into a sofa, or strewn around flower pots — with the sort of carelessness which requires practice.
You make your way around the wobbly bookshelves, around the dusty piano and arrive (naturally) at the philosophy section. This itself proves to be a challenge, the bookshop having no signage or natural order. But the portrait of three great men signals to you that you have found it: The Empiricists: Locke, Berkeley Hume. This intriguing if weathered volume tickles your fancy. You begin leafing its contents, its blurb, and check its pages for any blemishes left by philosophy undergraduates. None. Resolved to leave the shop as soon as possible, you approach the counter to make your purchase.
You are greeted by an older man of cultivated shabbiness, who should have retired several years ago. He feigns uninterestedness at your excellent choice, and informs you dryly that it will cost you twenty pounds.
Twenty pounds! You think he must be mistaken. The price on its dorsal, and for which it was sold some five years ago, is £14.99. You explain sensibly to the man that, even accounting for inflation, this paperback book could not have appreciated in value since its publication, but in fact should have depreciated substantially. You coolly suggest a reduced price of five pounds, and begin producing your wallet. The man, (clearly uninstructed in the sort of logic contained within the book) tilts his head at you and sighs in affected superiority.
This sigh represents his own curious logic, and that of the majority of independent business owners. That is: that you ought to pay the exaggerated price which he has dictated. Not because the book is worth as much, no. Not because it is particularly rare (it isn’t) and not because you couldn’t buy it more cheaply elsewhere (you could).
No, the independent bookshop owner expects you to pay more because, instead of air-conditioning, he has mould; because instead of his books being organised by logic, they are organised by whimsy; because he has a grand piano cluttering the shop floor. “You should give me your money,” says the shopkeeper, “because I like Jazz music”.
In short, the independent shop owner expects you to pay him an inflated price for his mere existence. “Do you not despise the cleanliness of commercial chains? Do you not hate the painted-on smiles of the customer assistants, and the organisation of books by market psychology? Do you not value authenticity?
“Well here it is,” he says. “And not only do I sell books, but I’ve read quite a few of them. I could name half a dozen augustan satirists off the top of my head. I could recite several hundred lines of poetry. I have expertise.”
But what good is this to me, when all I do is choose the book I want and place it on the counter? I have no use for this old man’s expertise. I do not wish to pick his brains any more than I wish to wade around the personal filth which he has created.
There is a certain arrogance to independent shop owners, in particular independent bookshop owners, which they have necessarily developed as a defence mechanism against modern competition. In the early days of commerce, shops could justify their existence on the basis that they sold a product which the customer could not find elsewhere. The relationship between proprietor and client was simple, transactional and unsentimental. If the client found a better deal elsewhere, the business owner would either adapt his business practice, or shut his doors with a quiet dignity.
The modern independent business owner, unable to do this, has taken refuge in the economy of pity. He expects his customers to pay a premium fee for a subpar service out of a sense of charity. The whole façade of expertise and “personal touch” is a means by which the independent business owner can mask the ultimate truth: that every time somebody shops in his store, they are making a donation.
This is the behaviour of a parasite, and should be treated as such. It is a uniquely uncomfortable experience to be in an independent shop. The closest comparison which occurs to me is the fear that grips one when, entering a Gentlemen’s Club, one is immediately approached by the most eager and least attractive of the dancers. “Will you buy me a drink?” You consent out of a sense of moral duty, and leave feeling incredibly dirty.