A hopeful turn of events. Why are bookshops bouncing back (and not dying)?

Inside the Documenta bookshop on Carrer de Pau Claris in Barcelona.

In recent years, more bookshops have opened than have closed in Barcelona. Ona, Finestres, Byron, Fahrenheit 451, Restory, Nocturama, La Insòlita, ECC Cómics… are just some examples of a trend that seems to defy the signs of the times. There are large ones and small ones, each with its own specialisation, and, what’s more, they are decentralised: whereas the big bookshops used to be mainly concentrated in the centre, now they are spread throughout the city’s neighbourhoods. Why is all this happening?

Let’s assume a dystopian scenario in which artificial intelligence chooses books for us. But how? It already exists. Amazon makes book recommendations based on our tastes – according to its knowledge of what we have previously bought or browsed – or based on the tastes of other readers who have purchased the same book. We are tempted by the convenience and immediacy of this giant that is Amazon. We don’t have to leave our home; within 24 hours, the delivery person will knock on the door and the delivery will often be free of charge. Huge computerised warehouses, algorithms trained by millions of transactions, instability in transport and in the entire distribution chain. But so practical, so fast, so convenient. Almost like magic. So how come they keep opening bookshops?

Perhaps we should look at the kind of relationship we have with books: do we have the same relationship with a screwdriver or an alarm clock? No. People who read regularly know that there is a deep and personal connection with a (good) book. There is something sacred in this communion, and sacred things need rituals. They also need temples, places in which to engage in a ritual. Perhaps our spell on lockdown made us (re)discover the importance of the pilgrimage to the bookshop, of the associated liturgy – becoming engrossed, searching, browsing, stumbling on something you weren’t looking for – and of placing yourself in the hands of someone who, at street level, connects you with the sacred: the bookseller.

While e-books have not been able to surpass print books, online sales platforms have not been able to surpass physical bookshops, nor has the algorithm replaced the all-important role of the professional as mediator. But that is not all. Bookshops provide neighbourhoods with a cultural fabric, they are – increasingly – meeting places for like-minded souls and fill the agenda with activities where sensations, emotions and ideas are shared. A friend who works in a bookshop affirms that “presentations are the new rock‘n’roll” there. And, yes, there are days when several presentations are held in Barcelona and they all are packed.

Ona, Finestres, Byron, Fahrenheit 451, Restory, Nocturama, ECC Cómics… Many bookshops have opened in the last two years and it seems that people never tire of visiting them, or of buying books from them. Perhaps it is because a solid opposition is being built up against a world that threatens to divest us of the most human part of our lives – face-to-face contact and interaction – and, perhaps even bombard us with stories generated by artificial intelligence. Let’s think of each and every bookshop as the bastions that have to defend true intelligence on Earth.

Portrait of Joan Carles Girbés Portrait of Joan Carles Girbés © Manel Medir/La Setmana

Joan Carles Girbés
Journalist and editor-in-chief of Ara Llibres

Print books remain unsurpassed for the time being. The e-book business has been stagnating for years and seems to have bottomed out. At least, for now. The emergence in Barcelona of new bookshops, varied, diverse, large and small, is wonderful news because they start out as cultural initiatives, beyond the specific purpose of selling books: they are involved in planning activities for all kinds of audiences, giving impetus to associations in their immediate surroundings, and breathing cultural and literary life into our neighbourhoods and cities. Establishing ties and creating supportive communities is key and enhances the status and consultative role of the bookseller’s profession. It is precisely because of this added value that they have a promising future!

The long months of the pandemic boosted reading rates because many people who were reading little or nothing (re)discovered the rewarding benefits of books. With the subsequent opening up to other areas of culture and recreation, the percentages have more or less returned to pre-pandemic levels. They might be a bit better. Now (regular and occasional) readers know where to go for information or recommendations.

Synergies between agents in the sector and proactive readers are fundamental, and more needs to be done in this regard, where there is still a long way to go. Especially among Catalan-language readers.

Portrait of Isabel Sucunza

Isabel Sucunza
Writer and manager of the Calders bookshop

We were used to small bookshops opening and suddenly Ona, Finestres, Byron, Fahrenheit 451 appeared on the scene… At first we were a bit scared, but I think it’s good that there are well stocked places, and that’s within the reach of very few. A network and fabric are woven as long as we stand by an idea that is sometimes somewhat forgotten, which is the diversity of bookshops. Really nearby our bookshop are the Universal bookshop, which sells comics, and La Carbonera, which is a cooperative that sells a lot more children’s and young people’s books. We are a bit bigger, and we mostly carry literature, and we play around a lot with the stock. We are often asked why we don’t have self-help books or bestsellers. And it’s because we are something else. I think that’s where the wealth lies. For instance, one of the best things about Finestres is the international side. This is very conducive to us sending customers from one bookshop to another. We do it all the time, but people are very surprised when we send them to La Carbonera.

What happened during the pandemic is that people had more time. And when people have time, they always end up picking up a book. We noticed a comeback, a determination to promote local businesses. When we were all on lockdown, it seemed that the world was moving towards digital platforms, but suddenly everyone was very keen to call the bookshop and order books, to tell us not to worry if the books took a long time to arrive. I don’t think print books have ever really lost momentum.

Portrait of Sebastià Portell Portrait of Sebastià Portell

Sebastià Portell
Writer and chair of the Association of Catalan Language Writers

A well-established network of local bookshops, in virtually every neighbourhood and municipality in the Catalan Countries, means that going to the bookshop means much more than just buying books. It means being part of a culture, taking part in a conversation, listening to advice and recommendations, and giving your opinion. This partly explains why readers remain loyal to print, compared to other literary systems, such as the Anglo-Saxon one: in English, there has been a much greater penetration of the e-book, and now the audiobook, integrated as a form of reading among a considerable number of readers. In the Catalan market, the audiobook is gaining momentum, and we will see what the future holds for it.

What’s more, there has never been so much work written and published in Catalan, with so much talent and with such variety. Our authors pique interest and are translated into other languages because they are good, because their works are part of the conversation of world literature. It is clear that the Institut Ramon Llull has had a great deal to do with all this, but this outside interest is not only the product of diplomacy and promotion, but of its intrinsic quality: it is Irene Solà and Tina Vallès being hits in dozens of languages; it is Jaume Cabré and Maria Barbal bewitching German readers; it is Eva Baltasar becoming the first author in Catalan to be nominated for the International Booker Prize. And it is our classics, from Mercè Rodoreda to Blai Bonet, and from Joan Sales to Joan Fuster, being read at last in the foreign languages in which they should always have been read. This, this outside interest, has also spread among readers, booksellers, publishers and authors here.

There is currently a certain pride in writing and reading in Catalan, and it encourages me to think that young people are becoming aware of this, both in terms of works written in our language and in terms of translations.

Portrait of Andrea Genovart Portrait of Andrea Genovart

Andrea Genovart
Writer, winner of the Llibres Anagrama 2023 Prize for Fiction

A new code has been incorporated into the idea of reading and the reading experience. This is the activity carried out on social media, which has played a part in reproducing a certain imaginary. This has encouraged many people to want to partake in this reading experience or to become better acquainted with the world of books, because it is a highly appealing and aesthetic imaginary, with a wealth of personal and more serene experiences, which are not so disrupted.

These new synergies allow, on the one hand, access to and greater insistence on reading, literature and new publications. But on the other hand, I think they are not entirely positive, in that they only represent literature from very specific imaginaries, in a world that is constantly being over-stimulated and immersed in a publishing market with dizzying publication speeds. Often these dynamics bear no relation to the nature of the reading experience itself, which calls for much slower and much more manageable paces.

I am delighted that there are new bookshops, diverse, large and small, not only in Barcelona, but in Catalonia. I think it bears testament to the interest in reading, but also to the need for reading to take on more cross-cutting paths, which means constant and regular book presentations, book clubs and even the creation of pleasant spots where you can read while you have a drink.

Portrait of Àurea Perelló Portrait of Àurea Perelló

Àurea Perelló
Graduate in Art History and manager of the Finestres bookshop

I think that every bookshop, every opening and every closure, corresponds to a different situation. I think it is wrong to generalise and to try to find a common cause; the fact is that the bookshops that have opened have different characteristics and are of different sizes. A former colleague of ours, for example, has opened a small bookshop in the Raval, Nocturama. Ona and Finestres did indeed open in the last two years, but we are talking about very different bookshops.

The experience has been wonderful for us. Finestres is not just a bookshop, it’s a cultural project, it’s an initiative that also includes prizes and grants, and we love the feeling of having created and of creating a community. In this respect, I think we have had a very good response; we wanted it to be a space for welcoming, for discovery, for meeting, so that people could come and linger in this city project and, little by little, we believe that this initiative of ours is being well received, regardless of the fact that Finestres is a bookshop with a fairly ambitious collection. The response is good and in line with what we are trying to offer.

I believe that the city has a great deal of plurality, an infinite number of voices and ways of doing things. I get the feeling that a lot of things are happening; for example, we have a fantasy and science fiction section that is doing very well and that connects with different audiences. We are lucky to have young people and people with more reading experience.

Portrait of Eric del Arco Portrait of Eric del Arco

Eric del Arco
President of the Gremi de Llibreters [Booksellers’ Guild] and manager of the Documenta bookshop

We are very happy in the Booksellers’ Guild, because not only are more bookshops opening in Barcelona, but many are also deciding to join the guild, which is completely voluntary, as they are under no obligation to do so. Even at a time when it seemed that Alibri, the historic bookshop on Carrer de Balmes, was about to close, we have seen how important it was and someone has decided to take a chance on it.

This is a business that is usually embarked upon at a time in life when you have a very clear idea; those who take it up are usually people who have already seen things and decide that they want to be closely linked to a job that is very face-to-face, that requires long hours, that has two or three intense periods a year and that, between one thing and another, takes up a lot of your life. And people are committed to and wish to pursue this profession because they see that it is ultimately gratifying.

Furthermore, the fact that, like in Barcelona, bookshops contribute an element of culture to the neighbourhoods where they have opened also speaks volumes about the people in these places, who go there to buy books because they believe in them, because they provide a service and because they like having a local cultural business nearby. The fact that bookshops are opening in many neighbourhoods in Barcelona means that there is a medium-high level of culture in the city, because a bookshop needs a reading audience to be able to keep going. All of this is a very nice vision of Barcelona, of bookshops and of culture as a whole: the printed book has become the offline cultural stronghold. You know that nobody will bother you if you pick up a book, nobody will distract you. If you don’t like the book then, admittedly, you start to check your mobile, but if the book gets you hooked, it’s a very powerful feeling. People need to disconnect and they do so in the book. It’s something that we didn’t expect and that has come about.

Portrait of Miquel Adam © Noemí Martínez

Miquel Adam
Writer and editor of La Segona Perifèria

The phenomenon that I most like to point out is that this upsurge in new bookshops spans the length and breadth of Catalonia: Mitjamosca in Badalona, the new Capona in Tarragona, Poques Paraules in Manresa, Isop in Olot, Obaga in Barcelona, the survival of Alibri and so many others that I am not mentioning.

The pandemic and the lockdown were a kind of unexpected miracle for the world of books. It proved that reading is an intimate refuge for the lonely and isolated human being. But the pandemic has now passed, and the levels of reading and book sales have returned to pretty much the same level as before.

As for new bookshops, new publishers and new readers, I suppose there are many explanatory factors. People are always keen to make a fortune in fulfilling jobs, and there are now postgraduate degrees in publishing and booksellers’ schools, which means that publishers and booksellers starting out can be better trained and have a better chance of survival. This does not mean that they are easy jobs: they are very demanding and sometimes thankless. But working in the field of books and literature has a number of non-financial rewards that are a magnet for many people.

There are publishers who are doing an excellent job in the slow process of building readership. But especially those that have focused on science fiction, an interesting link that connects the very young readers of comics and manga with the more educated readers of literature. In the long run, it will benefit the entire sector.

Portrait of Albert Benavente Portrait of Albert Benavente

Albert Benavente
Coordinator of the ECC Cómics bookshops

We believe new bookshops – in our case four new ones, two in Barcelona – reflect, on the one hand, the desire to create specialised spaces in a world in which there is too much noise and fanfare and in which books and comics have been relegated to a third or fourth option, behind streaming platforms for series and films or video games.

It doesn’t matter if a young person starts reading manga on a digital platform, because there will come a point when they will want that story to be accessible, they will want to be able to pick it up at any time. Anime – the renewed 3XL theme is a good example of this – make manga from these series the most sought-after, and digital webtoons can become physical and turn into bestsellers, as in the case of Míriam Bonastre’s Hooky. In the case of audiences over thirty or over forty, it’s the same story. They are fans who have grown up with these stories and now want to hold on to their collection, to continue having these characters around. Whether it’s The Smurfs, Tintin or Batman.

And, on the other hand, we increasingly have a new adult audience gravitating towards comics, either for related things like films or series or out of sheer curiosity, good press… It’s clear that, after the pandemic, there has been a rise in consumption. Comics and books have been an escape route for many people. Young people included, who have shown this on social media –especially on TikTok and Instagram –, where we see a vibrancy that we haven’t witnessed in many years.

Portrait of Anna Pérez pagès Portrait of Anna Pérez pagès

Anna Pérez Pagès
Cultural content coordinator on betevé

I find it a great paradox that, in these times we live in with limited living space, we are still committed to the physical medium, but I attribute this to the enduring fascination with the book as an object. Personally, books at home gobble me up, but I am incapable of giving up print, and I use the e-book only when I travel and to avoid carrying weight. And I have seen this dynamic in many cases around me. What’s more, we are finding more and more painstaking editions with graphic images with more personality, and this is perhaps also linked to the boom in the publishing of graphic novels.

If we are referring to specific bookshops, Finestres and Ona are two good examples of how a project can be successful if backed by a substantial investment. However, the case of Byron makes me worry a little more, because risky ventures always depend on financial balances that, in times of recession, are particularly tough.

For a while, specialisation seemed like a good option, but I always think of the Calders’ motto (“bookshop specialising in books”) and I realise that the key is to know how to build and nurture a loyal readership. But, in all cases, in addition to the personalised on-site recommendations that take place in a bookshop, I strongly endorse the role bookshops have as a meeting point and a place for interaction between the public and authors, with talks and presentations, and that somehow also materialises through the object that is the book, with the ritual of book signing… Besides that, I like to think that people who love books have become very mindful of the importance of buying in the city’s bookshops and of avoiding services such as Amazon.

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