Was it the internet in the library?

Who killed London's Murder One speciality bookstore? Was it the internet in the library?
Who killed Murder One bookshop on London's Charing Cross Road? (CBC)

Book lovers still refer to Charing Cross Road as London's literary paradise. So did I until my recent visit to investigate the closing of Murder One, a crime bookshop that is known around the world to readers of the genre. 

One of the last, small independent bookshops on a street that used to be chockablock with them, Murder One closed its doors at the end of January, joining the ranks of other specialty shops such as Silver Moon, which catered to women, and Shipley's, a haven for rare art books.

Maxim Jakubowski, novelist and proprietor of Murder One bookshop on London's Charing Cross Road. (CBC)

Regarding the demise of Murder One, owner Maxim Jakubowski has a suspect: "I think the criminal is actually the internet. I don't think there's any other culprit. I wouldn't want to give you any red herrings."

There are, however, accomplices. Jakubowski points to the big chains, the traffic charge imposed to keep cars out of central London, and the rise in West End rents. 

An accomplished novelist himself, Jakubowski decided a year ago to sell his shop in order to spend more time writing. But with Britain entering a recession there just wasn't a buyer. 

Because of that, the demise was more like Murder on the Orient Express, he suggests. "Of course, everybody who's read Agatha Christie knows that the body was not killed by one person but by virtually every character on the train. When it comes to Charing Cross Road I think the internet put the dagger in but there are five or six other culprits."

Prowling Murder One

Browsing in the basement of Murder One just days before the closing, I found devoted reader John Eccleston clutching his list of mysteries, inspired by one of those books-not-to-miss lists  newspaper editors are fond of printing.   

Like so many visitors to Murder One in its final days, Eccleston had heard the news and dashed  in before it was too late.

"It's slipping through our fingers," he says of Britain's literary heritage. "There should be some rule. You can't have chains taking everything over. It just leads to a certain dreariness."

Prowling around Murder One I found characters straight out of crime novels.  A tiny, long-haired woman of a certain age giggled at her choice of "murder, but not nasty murder" stories by Jessica Fletcher, author of the Murder She Wrote series. 

Another, younger reader wearing eyeglasses with "red or dead" printed on their arms talked about her personal favourite, Sherlock Holmes.

A BBC journalist was bereft at the thought of his favourite shop closing.

Meanwhile an older man dressed in a long black coat, his peaked cap and scarf partly obscuring his face, moved silently around the true crime section. 

It was a perfect setting for a murder.  But the only death was the shop's and its role in the subtle but complex change in what and how we read.

Meanwhile, in Ottawa

An ocean and some 5,378 kilometres away in Ottawa, Mordy Bubis has also noticed these changes. He owns Benjamin Books, an independent bookshop tucked in below a green awning on Osgoode Street. 

Alarmingly, he declares, "We are seeing a decline in peoples' curiosity," which he believes is due to a concentration of ownership at the publishing and retail levels of the book trade.

"The reader is being offered less to choose from," he says. "Today it's, 'Have you read the new Harry Potter?' in the same way as people inquire about blockbuster movies recently released.

"It makes the book like a motion picture, a product of the entertainment industry. So we live in a world where the small unique bookstore is becoming totally antiquated."

Bookstores are selling fewer books and this is where the internet comes in.

As Bubis explains, "All kinds of people who used to buy cook books, now go online and get the recipe.  The same with travel books. Reference books, atlases, scholarly publications. Why bother when the internet is near at hand?"

Indeed, why should it be otherwise? And yet as almost any book lover will tell you, there's nothing like handling books, reading a page or two, going on to the next and along the way discovering something you would never have found any other way.

Proper shopping

From his  store window on Osgoode Street, Bubis is watching his world change.  "Today in Canada there are a dwindling number of stores like this one. We're sitting here and we don't see people visiting us like they used to. When they do come in they ask 'Do you have a, b or c and if we don't they're on their way."

Murder One's Jakubowski would understand that. Our interview was interrupted when a customer dropped by to give him a bottle of scotch. 

Jakubowski says, "It's nice to know you've been loved. On the other hand, being somewhat cynical, lots of people have re-emerged out of the wood work saying 'Ah, maybe I should have come in more often over the last five years rather than buy on the internet,' but it's nice to know."

On the shop's last day, Jakubowski was hoping to close a deal to let Murder One live on — where else but on the internet. But the deal had not closed.  "Everything's down to the wire these days", he said resignedly.