Monday musings on Australian literature: Bookshops, 2017

It’s been sometime since I’ve talked about bookshops. I missed this year’s National Bookshop Day (now called Love Your Bookshop Day). However, I have been thinking about bookshops. After a flurry of closures, particularly of bookshop chains, in our town, things seem to have settled down. My local mall, in fact, went from losing its two stores, several years ago, to now having two stores again. And, our independent stores around town seem to be holding their own. Is this indicative of something positive happening?

Well, I came across a recent article in The Conversation which suggested that things aren’t as desperate as we were feeling a decade ago. The article, by Nathan Hollier, the Director of Monash Publishing, is titled “Love of bookshops in a time of Amazon and populism”. It opens with the following sentence:

There was genuine positivity at this year’s Australian Booksellers’ Association Conference in Melbourne in June. The mood was one of camaraderie and optimism at the sharing of good news.

How nice, eh?

I’ll come back to the article, but of course I wanted to find out more about this year’s Australian Bookseller’s Conference. I didn’t find a lot of substance – in my brief Google search – but I did find some advance notification which listed some of the topics to be discussed:

a session on strategies for sustainability; the launch of National Bookshop Day 2017; a session on how small and independent publishers can work with bookstores to offer customers ‘something different’; a panel on children’s bookselling; and sessions on the state of the industry, ‘analogue marketing’, stock mix, and issues affecting small businesses.

Interesting, particularly given Hollier’s statement that children’s booksales are doing particularly well. He also says that “store numbers have steadied in recent years and, as was reported at the conference, both independent and chain or franchise booksellers are expanding”. Hmm … the number of stores is stable but these stores are expanding.

Book Stack

(Courtesy: OCAL, from clker.com)

However, as Hollier points out, there’s a new threat on the horizon, Amazon, which, as most Australian readers probably already know, has bought a big distribution site just outside of Melbourne. Local booksellers, says Hollier, will need to adjust (once again) in an environment “in which Amazon will likely reduce its delivery time and charges significantly. This will place downward pressure on book prices, and thus booksellers’ margins and capacity to survive.”

In the face of a megastore which can carry huge stock, local booksellers need, as they always have done, to carefully curate their holdings. They will also need to beef up extra services. “Community building will be the order of the day,” says Hollier. However, this curating is harder at a time when review pages in broadsheet newspapers are reducing, because these pages provide booksellers with “a degree of consensus as to what is important and valuable to read.” Certainly, in the heyday of newspaper review pages, our local bookshop would be inundated with requests for books which had been reviewed, particularly in the weekend lift-outs.

Hollier also discusses the challenge of lower prices, saying that:

The Productivity Commission doesn’t accept arguments in favour of maintaining price levels for some products in order to keep the costs of others down. But regulatory bodies have special challenges when confronted with large, diverse conglomerates, such as Amazon. It has the capacity to drop prices for products in one category (such as books) to maximise competitiveness, while the overall bottom line is propped up by more profitable parts of the business (such as Amazon Web Services).

He goes on to talk about the challenges for regulation when large firms follow “determined strategies of tax minimisation, aggressive use of IP and patent law, and sustained intransigence towards its workforce’s self-organisation and unionisation”.

Muse bookshop

Muse bookshop (before an event)

So, what can local booksellers do? Well, mainly it must be to continue that age-old strategy of customer service. They can stock the books their readers want, “curate” their collections (with new release shelves, local author shelves, genre highlight shelves, and so on), and, as I’m seeing increasingly in my area, offer more author events and talks. While for some readers, the cheapest book is all that matters, for others of us (and perhaps we are the lucky ones who can afford it), the experience of browsing beautiful bookshelves and talking with the owner (or staff) is worth the extra few dollars the books might cost. It feels good to support a bricks-and-mortar shop.

Anyhow, Hollier says that the bottom line is for people to have the desire and time (oh yes) to read. This desire, he says,

rests most powerfully on the belief that what one knows and says matters; that democracy, its public sphere, and reason, evidence and logic are the driving forces of one’s society.

Oh boy, isn’t this true! In this sense, he concludes, we get “the books and bookshops we deserve”. If this is so, then it seems that readers are turning things around, are showing that it is real bookshops that we want. May the current apparently positive state-of-play continue and grow, eh?

Have you noticed changes in the bookshop landscape in your neck of the woods?

22 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Bookshops, 2017

  1. No change where I live. There are no chains here in town and two used bookshops. Well three if you count the library shop. One shop is unpleasant to go into because the owner seems to think we are there to STEAL books which makes me wonder if she really wants to part with them…
    BTW have you read any Austen biographies?
    I’m reading BROWSE:The World in Bookshops. You’d love it.

  2. I live in Castlemaine where there are two main bookshops and several second-hand (that’s another thing) bookshops. The two main ones are Books Plus which is tiny and elegant, where you can get a range of lovely discounted books, and Stoneman’s which deserves its own sentences. So – Stoneman’s is unique and eccentric. It rambles through an old shop that once was a grocery store. The wide counter is the same one that used to offer cheese and ham. Currently, one of the tables is devoted to fabulous Taschen books which you can drool over (not literally, this is a civilised place). There are more flashy cook books here than I have ever seen in one place anywhere else. The latest fiction, all the children’s books you would ever want – this is getting too long for a comment. It is worth visiting Castlemaine just to see Stoneman’s. Rave rave.

    • Thanks for giving Stonemason’s a plug Carmel. I must get to Castlemaine on one of our Victorian road trips.

      And yes, second hand shops are worth praising too – and I have written about them before. I have a couple of go-tos for Aussie lit.

  3. I think I’ll move to Castlemaine! I’m not sure the inner southern suburbs of Perth have as many bookshops. But a big shout out to Crow books in Vic Pk. I’d retire to a bookshop of my own if I had the courage to believe customers would come.

    • Hmmm, I responded to this via my iPad app, Bill, but I don’t think it’s “taken”. Anyhow, thanks for the shout-out to Crow Books (wherever Vic Pk is!!). I’m glad to give book shops loved my readers here a little plug.

  4. Stoneman’s is a beautiful book shop. My little town supports two bookshops – one sells new books, the other sells secondhand books – but I truly don’t know how either keeps financially afloat. They both also compete with the newsagent and the op shops in town. There’s quite a bit of tourist trade though, and maybe that’s what does the trick. Just about every little town in the region has it’s own bookshop, so someone must be buying! I think bookshops will exist in the longer term but, just like saddleries, there will likely be fewer of them.

  5. Really good news that Australian independents are able to thrive – you give a daunting list of the challenges they face. Scottish independents are competing in the same imaginative ways- a shop like Golden Hare in Edinburgh or the Orcadian Bookshop outstanding examples.

  6. I have to go into Melbourne to find good book shops. Local ones are small, and do not have a very good range. Hill of Content Bookshop at the top of Bourke Street is my favourite. I love to haunt second hand book shops and also op shops. You can find some real treasures in them.

  7. Our capital city used to have three bookshops plus a bundle of used stores. Now we’re down to one branch of a chain, an independent second hand shop and an Oxfam book shop. None of them are expanding their footprint however. The chain is doing a lot of author events and introduced a cafe but they are also selling ‘stuff’ like calendars and wrapping paper which I hate seeing.

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