A few days ago I went to visit the wonderful bookstore the Book Barge while it was moored on Regent’s Canal just behind Kings Cross station. I had some idea of what to expect having read some recent news coverage but one thing that had escaped my notice was that the barge’s adventure up and down the canals of the UK is an experiment in what might be called “book-sufficient living.” For six months the floating book shop is making a tour of the country “living off books for the entirety of the trip, bartering stock for food, accommodation.” The hope is that this radical experiment will draw attention to the plight of independent booksellers, prompting readers to reassess the value of books in the wake of the massive discounting trends of online and supermarket retailers. If book shopping could be understood not only in terms of the market value of price tags but more directly in terms of a book's value as an item equivalent to, say, a meal or a warm shower perhaps this would bring price considerations into better balance when readers decide where and how they want to buy a book.
The Book Barge @Large experiment offers an interesting example of the way in which it is possible to reinvigorate public interest in visiting the bricks and mortar (or in this case, wood and water) bookshop. The barge is a USP. But the problem is not getting customers but getting sales. Thanks to chain stores and internet retailers readers have grown to expect discounts and, indeed, many people believe that they are being cheated in some way if a store sells anything at full price. This means that even though customers enjoy browsing the independents, many people seek out discounts when it is time to make a purchase. It seems to me that by trying this “bartering for books” experiment the Book Barge presents customers with a way to think beyond this basic reduction to market principles. What if the exchange wasn’t strictly financial, but still economic? An experiment like this provides a useful corrective to the easy acceptance that all economies come down to capital - some run on other currencies. And in demonstrating this the Book Barge illustrates that the triumph of the discount isn’t inevitable. As Laura Miller points out in her book about US independent booksellers:
“the production, circulation, and consumption of goods can be organized in many ways, and even in the modern world, noncapitalist forms exist, sometimes temporarily, sometimes as a pale memory of earlier irganizational types, but nonetheless, not that difficult to find.” (10)
You can read more about the ideas that inspired the Book Barge @Large adventure here.