Will the bookshop now have a happy ending?

DO YOU like your books three-dimensional and made of paper, with pages that curl and can be turned back or even bent over (please not if you’ve borrowed one from me) – or do you prefer the neatness of a digital book?

The other day in conversation my mother-in-law mentioned that she didn’t like what she described as an ‘i-book’. At first I thought she way saying she didn’t like electronic books, odd as I’m sure she has one. Then all was cleared up. What she meant was that she didn’t like a novel written as a first-person narrative – an I-book, if you will.

This came back to me when I was reading a story on the business pages. That is not a locale in which I usually linger, but the headline caught my eye – “Undaunted by Amazon, Waterstones boss is on course to make profit.”

Now this is certainly good news for those of us who like to read. Four years ago Waterstones was looking like a busted flush – and in danger of going the same way as Borders, which was a lovely book chain until it went downhill and eventually disappeared. Now Waterstones has stepped back from the brink of bankruptcy and is about to make its first annual profit since the financial crisis, according to a report in The Guardian at the weekend.

The managing director responsible for the turnaround in fortunes at Waterstones is called James Daunt, and perhaps the most interesting detail is his CV is that he used to run a chain of independent bookshops in London, Daunt Books. So he came to the job with a proper love of books and an understanding of what readers like.

The usual tough decisions were made. Daunt cut costs and shed jobs – and as the previous occupier of a job that was shed and shredded to nothing, I know that can hurt – but he does seem to have turned the chain round.

Daunt says that the shops he inherited were dull and needed a reboot, or perhaps a re-book. “There was no interest, excitement or originality in the shops,” he says. This was certainly true in York, where the Waterstones was huge – full of books but empty in spirit. A move across town to a smaller shop proved to be a tonic, as the new branch is friendlier and more interesting, and even boasts a pleasant café in what was once the editor’s office of the Yorkshire Evening Press, unless my memory is playing tricks.

A good Waterstones is a bonus for this city and any city, although we mustn’t forget the locally owned bookshops too, should we be lucky enough to still have such a rare bookish beast.

Buying books in person from a good bookshop, a local shop or a chain, is so much more satisfying than sending off for something on Amazon. The leisurely browse is part of the pleasure, just being surrounded by all those books, all those words, in serried ranks. It is an unremarkable truth in life that a decent bookshop probably contains more pleasure, diversion and enlightenment than anywhere else on earth. And Waterstones or anyone else can have that one for free.

James Daunt puts the resurgence down to a revival in the fortunes of the physical book, with industry figures showing sales of hardbacks and paperbacks rising by three per cent in the first half of this year. Sales of e-books are at the same time falling, and demand for the Kindle e-reader is said to be declining.

To answer my own opening question, I like both. My Kindle was a birthday present a few years back. It is easy to use and has offered the various pleasures of Lee Child, Graham Greene, Saul Bellow and all of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle.

It’s a basic Kindle, without unnecessary further distractions: you can download books and read them, and that’s it. Ideal for journeys, and quite a pleasing object to have in your hands.

So why don’t I use it more often? Oh, you know. It’s something to do with the physical book, ink and the paper bound into one of the oldest but simplest delights around.

I do like the Kindle and intend to download a bit of Agatha Christie sometime soon as the old Queen of Crime is a gap for me: never read a single one.

But at the moment I am re-reading a Penguin paperback copy of The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, and what a happy reunion that is proving to be. Snappy as a clip round the head, the wisecracking lines keeping on coming as Philip Marlowe works for a millionaire being given the squeeze by a blackmailer.

Last night in an insomniac daze one line jumped out at me. Marlowe has rescued a dangerous damsel he’d found naked apart from her earrings. She’d been sharing a room with a dead man. When he returns the body has gone, although he can still see the drag marks on the rug. “Whoever had done this had meant business. Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.”

Great words, however you read them, but especially on paper and with a lurid yellow cover, with the book’s title reversed out of the red shadow of a gun.

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