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Thursday, October 14, 1999 Published at 18:02 GMT 19:02 UK


84 Charing Cross Road.Com

Hay-on-Wye is worried that culture will lose out to cost

By Hugh Sykes of BBC Radio 4's PM programme

Helene Hanff ordered her first batch of books from Marks & Co at 84 Charing Cross Road in early October 1949. The essays by Thomas Hazlitt and Robert Louis Stevenson took nearly a month to reach her in New York City.

[ image: This shop's overheads have gone from 35,000 to 3,000 in its move to the web]
This shop's overheads have gone from 35,000 to 3,000 in its move to the web
Last week, I searched for an out-of-print copy of a travel book by Freya Stark - six bookshops and a lot of dust later, I'd found nothing. Abandoning snail-space for cyber-space, it took me less than a minute to find eight copies on one website - I chose the cheapest, reserved it on line, and picked it up from a shop in Bloomsbury the next morning.

Internet shopping is having a huge impact on the second-hand book business.

Huge savings

The BBC's Hugh Sykes reports on the Internet bookshop boom
Gabriel Beaumont, who has been in the book trade for thirty years, has abandoned his shop near the British Museum; Beaumont Travel Books are now on three web sites.

He'll miss the people wandering in to browse and chat, but he'll save himself a fortune. His rent and rates in Bloomsbury add up to 35,000 a year - the websites will cost him about 1,500, and storage for the books near his home another 5,000.

[ image: The 'honesty shelves' where people pay by putting money in a slot could become a thing of the past]
The 'honesty shelves' where people pay by putting money in a slot could become a thing of the past
Gabriel will be better off by another 20,000 a year because he doesn't need an assistant any more. Total saving: nearly 50,000. And he won't have to commute into London ever again.

A street away, at Bloomsbury Books, Mike Thompson thinks he'll be on the web by Christmas - he told me that one site with 40,000 titles on it, fully catalogued, will cost him less than he pays his window cleaner in a year. How much does he pay his window cleaner in a year? Five pounds a month.

Mike also hopes internet shopping might bring rents down - until now, landlords have been able to charge bookshops whatever they wanted, knowing that they had to be located in busy tourist districts like Charing Cross Road, or the little streets round the British Museum. Not any more, thanks to the net.

Michael Bartlett runs his specialist military-history book business from a converted courthouse in a down-at-heel district of Talgarth in South Wales. No tourists ambling along his street. He sends out 300 catalogues, but since he's been on the net the catalogue part of his business has been eclipsed - he has about a 1,000 enquiries a every three months from the website. He's had orders from all over the world - most recently from Alaska, Shetland and Latvia.

[ image: Empty shelves at Beaumont books]
Empty shelves at Beaumont books
Second-hand booksites may be better value for customers - Michael Bartlett says that he and his colleagues check the prices of the leading dealers, and undercut them. Browsing booklovers can compare prices in seconds, with a few clicks of a mouse.

Paying the price

But in Hay-on-Wye, the book town on the Wales-England border near the Black Mountains, the self-styled 'King' of Hay Richard Booth is suspicious of the Internet.

Booth Books have a website, but he has no intention of giving up his shops. There are nearly 30 bookshops in Hay - and the cafes, guesthouses and giftshops depend on the tourists who are attracted to the town by the hours they can spend browsing for books on real shelves.

Richard Booth told me he feels threatened by the net: "If we just concentrate on Internet bookselling, there's no reason to come to Hay".

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