Have you noticed lately how whenever a newspaper carries a photo of our post offices this usually features copious amounts of parcels from play.com? What a pity. Because we all know what this means: fewer people are buying books from bookshops.
And I am the first one to utter mea culpa. Nowadays, the only books I make it a point to buy from bookshops are for my daughter. I always make sure she is tagging along because I want to instil in her the love of browsing, the art of waiting to see which of the books on the shelves will beckon to her. I want her to grow up with childhood memories which smell of books and bookstores - because I believe a love of bookshops makes up half the love of reading.
As for me, for different reasons, I now buy online. However, I am all too aware that online serendipity is very artificial. Unless you know exactly which book you're after, you always tend to gravitate towards the website top 10, that is, the books with the best marketing campaigns behind them.
It probably explains why (agrrhh) I've lately found myself reading the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer: a set of four books about vampires. Now, I'm not a vampire person. Lord, no. Vampires? Fantasy and science fiction genres? Not me, no. (By book four, I was so preoccupied by the idea of vampires 'mainstreaming' in the modern world that when I spotted a scratch bleeding on my leg one afternoon, my gut reaction was: "Oh, has someone bled me? ...oh, hang on, that's the book.")
So yes, they were cheap, I got bored browse-clicking, and out of laziness I got the books everyone seems to be reading.
What happened to the art of bookselling? The days when you'd skip out of a bookshop hugging a treasured book that the bookseller specifically recommended to you and you alone, and you knew that he'd be recommending a totally different kind of book to the next customer.
And that's because a true bookseller knows his customers' reading habits and has a relationship with them, which is a bit like a doctor's: a very narrow knowledge of them, but it's quite deep. Often, people's reading habits are quite an intimate part of them, which is why when your bookseller suggests a book, you know that you won't pause to breathe until you've finished it.
I have to say here that James Sapienza keeps coming to mind (of Sapienzas' Booksellers in Valletta - the brothers folded their 104-year-old book business a couple of years ago). Only the other day a friend was telling me how Sapienza had introduced him to all the new authors he has ever read. "It was brilliant: I'd go in and he'd be saying: 'I've got just the book for you'," he said.
I remember all the exciting book finds when I worked there. Sapienza once came up to us with this book of a then obscure author, Yann Martel. In a matter of weeks all the staff had read Life of Pi and we couldn't stop talking about it to anyone who came to the shop. It went on to win the Booker.
Unfortunately, bookselling is a dying art. Not only in Malta, I would say. I think it's the globalisation/chainstore effect. Instead of personal recommendations we are given bestseller lists which are almost the same in every shop worldwide.
Instead of bookworm independent booksellers we have stores full of very efficient, polite salespeople, many of whom are not readers. It's like going to a beautician and when you lie on the couch you realise she has a thick dark moustache: however good the service, you want someone who practises the service they're giving.
Real booksellers are a rare find nowadays. Actually, sometimes it feels as if all bookshops have gone 'fast foodish' - piles of bargains and special offers and what not. None give you the peace and quiet you need to trail your finger over the books lining the shelves till the one for you calls out. So that's when you shrug your shoulders and the price takes priority, and you shop on play.com.
Thankfully, some shops still seem to resist. My most favourite bookshop in the whole wide world is 'Shakespeare and Company' in Paris, off Notre Dame, on the Rive Gauche. It's a cacophony of a shop whose book-lined walls make you glee with delight (see it on www.sav.org/shco).
This is my idea of a bookshop: rickety-hickety and with a little bell which rings when you go in. I know that probably it does not make business sense, but I know it makes a very harmonious place for the soul. As Franz Kafka says 'A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.' How I wish we could stop selling and buying books from soulless places.