Transatlantic comparisons • 30 September 2007 • The SnowBlog
Now there are many things I don't understand, but here's one that's often bothered me. In America, a small town can have a gigantic Barnes & Noble or Borders bookstore and in the UK only a major town can sustain such a thing. And forgive me for saying this, but when attempting to complete the unfinished sentence 'The average American is...' very few people would suggest 'relentlessly bookish' as their answer. America doesn't have a culture that particularly glorifies the bookworm, but somehow it has an economy that encourages the mega-bookstore. Or maybe it's that the UK has an economy that discourages big shops for small towns. Now for all I know, Barnes & Noble beat their employees and use homeless kittens as packing material - I have no data on that - but I do know how wonderful it is to arrive in a little town in the States, small enough that the centre of town is only a two minute drive from open fields, and be able to find a bookstore the size of a football field, with somewhere to get coffee and buy magazines and look at little interesting notebooks and pens - and to browse through thousands upon thousands of books. In the States a settlement of 20,000 might have a store like that; in the UK it's more like 500,000. I'm guessing wildly at the figures, but I'm not imagining the disparity.
Now, apparently labour is cheaper in the US. But then again, big bookstores are not exactly crammed with staff. If that was all that was holding us back, then why not apologise to all concerned and replace the information desk with a telephone or computer? And why not try out some of those self-service tills that supermarkets have? Personally, I wouldn't care if browsing for books never brought me into contact with a human. Some days I'd actually prefer it. Or is it the back-room staff that cost the money? We can afford people to arrange lettuces but not books?
Also, land is cheaper in the US. Doesn't that mean we could still have small communities with large bookstores in Wales or parts of Yorkshire? But we don't, do we?
And don't tell me that books are cheaper here so margins are slimmer. I own at least a hundred books where the dollar price is printed on the back and it's within 25% of the sterling price. And those two currencies have never been within 25% of each other as long as I've been reading. There's a fat mark-up when you compare dollar to sterling, at least on the books I own.
So is it really that Americans just like books more than Brits? Really? Huh.