Tara Brabazon: The best of places to share uncomfortable words

Truly independent alternative bookshops serve students, academics and society by offering an outlet for risky and challenging titles, says Tara Brabazon

April 7, 2010

With the credit crunch crumpling financial projections from British universities, there is much talk of knowledge transfer, third-stream funding and community partnerships. In the midst of panicked planning, these phrases are easy to write and quick to insert into policies and vision statements. Therefore, it is important to scratch these clichés to reveal the local knowledge undergirding transnational generalisations. There is value in following the footsteps of Michel de Certeau, understanding a city by walking through it. It is seductive to flick through reports and click through tables, locating possibilities for urban redevelopment and the role of universities in such proposals. It is more honest to understand universities and their surroundings at street level rather than via PDF documents with links to Google Maps. Instead of an online Street View, it is better to walk the streets.

Familiar patterns dominate the buildings and businesses encircling universities. There are too few public parks and too many car parks. There are too many coffee shops and pubs with smokers spilling on to the footpath. Invariably, there are bookshops within a short walk of the chancellery building. Often they are treasures. While both chain and independent bookstores are in trouble in our Amazon age, a few specialist, quirky gems have survived, fed by a stream of student and staff interest. Near the University of Sydney, Gleebooks remains a landmark. City Lights is the beacon of San Francisco’s academic/bohemian community.

In Edinburgh, Word Power Books maintains this key community and scholarly function. Located in the city’s Southside on West Nicolson Street, it is framed by a coffee shop on one side and a tattoo parlour on the other. The proximity to the University of Edinburgh supports the business and cloaks it in an energised and agitated space of writing, reading and thinking.

Opened in 1994, it was founded in an earlier era of book retailing. Like most small and independent bookstores, online sales are now a crucial part of the business. The treasures in the shop tumble from their window display. The stock is staunchly progressive and decisively left-wing. It is proudly Scottish, but international in aspiration.

Those of us who teach do not always deserve such committed and quality bookstores. University courses are dominated by textbooks. Academics know it is easier – and cheaper – to teach a module based on a book that is revised and reprinted rather than one that is discarded and replaced. With shrinking library and student budgets, it is easier to restrict reading lists to low-priced textbooks released by large publishers.

We know it should not be this way. We know that our best students should read expansively, challengingly, provocatively and passionately. Each day, they should confront views that contradict those of the staff who teach them. They should spend time negotiating through these differences. Students should not agree with teachers or writers of textbooks; they should disagree – productively and proactively – with the established order of ideas.

Teachers restrict student development when excusing them from this type of difficult reading. We disrespect the great academics who taught us when we encourage students to read a textbook and highlight a few key ideas, which are then recycled in assignments and examinations. I want students to experience the troubling excitement of wandering through library shelves overwhelmed by a range of voices, views and alternatives. I want them to hold sufficient information literacy so that they can enter the Directory of Open Access Journals or Google Scholar and insert propelling search terms that release a gush of innovative and fiery ideas.

Most importantly, I want them to be able to walk around the streets of their university and not only enjoy a pint, a coffee or dubstep, but also seek out bookshops with stock that can motivate, challenge, probe and provoke. Great booksellers such as Word Power gather their volumes with an aim connected to – but also wider than – the academics and students who are their key market. They must find unusual titles, authors and ideas that cannot be uncovered through a basic Amazon search. One of the great problems with Amazon’s strategy from a consumer’s perspective is that they base “Recommended Titles” on earlier searches. That means our buying habits are not only monitored but narrowed by basing future interests on past purchases. For me, physical bookshops hold a key function when compared with Amazon. I rely on good booksellers to introduce me to small publishers, new authors and radical ideas that arch beyond the reach of Amazon’s assumptions about reading, retailing and consumerism.

Word Power confronts Amazon politically rather than through a deep discounting of books. It declares: “Our worldwide online service is an alternative to corporate bookshops that refuse to allow their workers to join trade unions. Unlike Amazon, recipient of £1.6 million taxpayers’ money from the Scottish Executive, we receive no state funding.”

The people at Word Power want books to be more than another product sold alongside kitchen utensils and clothing. They aim to create more complex relationships between publishers, retailers and readers.

Word Power states that “the books we offer you could change your view of the world and make a lifelong impact on you”. This is not reading for pleasure or leisure. It does not encourage comfortable flicking through fluffy prose with a refreshing cup of tea. This is reading with an agenda. We may not always – or mostly – agree with what we read. But marking out the intellectual time and space to consider a range of arguments remains a necessity – not a luxury – of academic life.

These small bookshops enhance the experience of being at university. Too often we become depressed that our students are not reading. But our expectations for reading, writing and thinking are important and should not be bent, broken or lowered because large publishing houses have moved away from risky monographs and towards basic textbooks.

There are alternatives to how we read and how we shop. In one of Word Power’s displays, squeezed between books by Irvine Welsh and Antonio Gramsci, is a mug that reads, “Think globally, drink locally.” I welcome the sentiment. It should be extended. Thinking globally and reading locally anchors the knowledge economy to a location that may fuel economic development but not cheapen education.

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