‘Would you like to share?’
The dapper gentleman arrived at the London Review Bookshop cafe at exactly the same moment as me. There was one table free. The arrangement was quickly made, and we settled down to a pot of Darjeeling and a piece of rhubarb and apple tart.
As so often happens in these civilised surroundings, conversation was easy. We talked books, authors, bookshops, theatre, concerts, books again. My companion was enjoying a few days’ holiday in London, before returning, he said rather gloomily, to ‘shuffle papers’ for an IT company in Nottingham. In the meantime he was cramming in theatre, exhibitions, and tonight a talk at the LRB.
Again, I felt how lucky I am to wander the capital at will, popping into world-class museums for a quick half-hour, browsing the many quirky and independent bookshops, even forking out for West End theatre tickets on a whim.
Then he said something that I’ve been thinking for ages. ‘The only way I can affect what happens in the recession,’ he said, ‘is by supporting the places I want to see survive.’
Which of course was why we’d both headed for LRB for books and cakes, rather than Starbucks or Waterstones. It’s the little places that make the difference to an area.
Yes, I am aware I might have paid less for that Dickens biography, newly purchased from Judd Books, if I’d ordered it from Amazon (or maybe not; it was jolly good value). But then where would I browse during a Sunday afternoon on Marchmont Street? And I expect the new Specsavers in the Brunswick Centre is cheaper than the long-standing family opticians Drury Porter Eyecare (don’t know; haven’t tried). But I doubt Specsavers would greet me like a long-lost friend when I pop in for my contact lenses, or give me half a dozen pairs of frames to take home for the weekend, when I was trying to choose new specs.
In one of those trendy pop economics books that was around everywhere last summer, one of the authors scoffed at people like me who opt to pay more, for not being ‘price sensitive’. In a grand example of knowing the price of everything, etc, he explained how we distort the market by not insisting on the lowest price possible. What he doesn’t know is that I’m extremely price sensitive if something isn’t good enough. I won’t pay anything for rubbish, be it as cheap as you like.
So while I have the luxury of choice, I choose quality. I choose good books, in bookshops where the assistant doesn’t need to be told who Chaucer was, good tea sold in pots not ceramic buckets, good food from shops that know where it came from. Buying books from a shop that thinks I might want to read anything by Katie Price, or tries to co-sell me a block of Dairy Milk for half price, depresses me. Support your local shops, yes. But only the ones you’d be sorry to lose.