Two weeks ago I had the melancholy task of collecting a book from the Book House, Summertown, Oxford. Before I am deluged with outrage that I could ever describe a bookshop visit as melancholy, I’ll explain that this wonderful, deceptively spacious (as estate agents love to put it) jewel of a bookshop is closing in June 2018, and they’d asked me to take back the one copy of Ante’s Inferno still on their shelves.
A younger sibling of the glorious Aladdin’s Cave that is the Book House in Thame, the Book House, Summertown, has been a fixture of this part of Oxford for nearly 30 years.
During that time the Summertown shopping centre – as so many throughout the UK – underwent a sea change in character, with traditional stores giving way to coffee and charity shops. When I arrived in the 1980s, there were 3 butchers, 3 greengrocers, 2 newsagents, 2 off licences, a toyshop, a pet shop, a post office and, oh joy, a bookshop.
All have gone now, with the Book House holding out valiantly years longer than the others. Life has changed, our shopping habits have changed and – saddest of all – so have our reading habits. We are all reading less than we used to; according to the wonderful Book House manager Renee Holler (herself a prolific children’s author), sales are down even in children’s books, supposedly a growth area in the UK market. Competition from ebooks, Amazon and supermarkets offering cut-price paperbacks add to the pressure and increasingly, it’s all too much for delightful independent bookshops like the Summertown Book House to withstand.
One reason for the decline in reading among children, according to the annual Understanding the Children’s Book Consumer survey from Nielsen Book Research, is that we are reading to them less than we used to. In 2013, 69% of preschool children were read to daily in 2013; five years later, only 51%. Parents of three to four-year-olds apparently ‘struggle to find energy at the end of the day.’
Call me a dinosaur (ooh, yes please) but this statement puzzles me as much as it saddens. Do these parents not put their toddlers to bed? In my memory, amid the nightly chaos of trying to clear up toys (rarely succeeded), cajoling squalling youngsters upstairs, into and out of the bath and finally to their beds, that moment when at last we sat down together and read Janet and Allen Ahlberg’s Peepo or Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea was the gentlest, easiest and most relaxing of parental input.
So relaxing, in fact, that I’d frequently read myself to sleep, much to the annoyance of the child on my lap who’d turn and pinch my cheeks awake again. How do these parents, who lack the energy to read to their children, settle them into their beds without it?
Now I have a 2 year-old grand-daughter, bedtime isn’t (yet) one of my tasks. But during the day she only has to set eyes on me to demand ‘Old King Cole’ (her current obsession, narrowly running ahead of Humpty Dumpty and the Grand Old Duke of York) before taking my hand and leading me to the sofa for a surfeit of nursery rhymes. I’m only too happy to comply, having always found reading aloud much less effort than creating imaginary games of Shops, or Lions and Zookeeper (to pick two of my daughter’s favourites when young). Their time will come, of course, along with the joys of television, ipads etc which for now the parents can control. But when it does, I’ll do all I can to keep alive this early love of books.
Meanwhile, a heartfelt plea: I totally get why Amazon is so successful. Online ordering is so convenient; I love having things delivered direct to my house instead of having to traipse round city centres trying to find them. So why not use the online ordering system operated by bookshops such as Blackwell’s and Waterstones? Often the prices match Amazon’s; you may have to wait a couple of days more for the delivery, that’s all. The difference is that you’re supporting not only the bookshops but also publishers, since while bookshops and wholesalers demand a 40 – 55% discount on the RRP of each title, Amazon is the greediest with its insistence of 60%.
And above all – as a little girl at Pegasus Primary School (part of the Blackbird Academy Trust) advised the Duchess of Cambridge on a recent visit – read to your children!