The End of the World for Bookstores?

This week, the Australian arm of Borders bookstores and its retail stablemate Angus & Robertson went into voluntary administration, citing debts of up to $75 million. Whispers of the group’s demise were going around last August. Some news reports and commentators in the blogsphere blamed the rise of internet shopping and high overheads.

Can we blame the closures on slow book sales? On online competitors who operate on lower costs? This article says it isn’t our love of internet shopping that has caused the demise of an empire. Overexpansion on the part of the private equity owners, who were hoping to float the company to raise cash, seems to be the key.

The collapse of bricks’n’mortar stores has spooked a lot of book-lovers. A&R, after all, has a 125-year history and hundreds of people will lose their jobs. Could there be a domino effect on the other big chains?

With big players out of the game, it’s now a good opportunity for those still in the marketplace to reassess their strategies and stay competitive. Some are saying that the increase in downloadable e-book formats means we won’t need so many bookstores in future. Maybe that’s true. I, for one, would hate to see a total loss of real shopfronts. There’s nothing like browsing in a bookstore for hours, smelling the ink, reading opening sentences, touching all those gorgeous embossed covers. In fact, I once browsed so long in the old A&R Pitt Street store that a security guard started to tail me, making me feel like a book thief. That incident actually stopped me from patronising that particular store ever again.

It’s no secret that I love the UK’s Book Depository. (Free postage? Fast, hassle-free service? No overzealous security guards? Who wouldn’t be seduced by a deal like that? Surely our retailers here could do some brainstorming and find ways to offer their customers similar perks.) But like a lot of people, I will continue to buy books from all over, including my favourite “real” stores:

  • Kinokuniya, Sydney
  • Better Read Than Dead, Sydney
  • Gleebooks, Sydney
  • Berkelouw, Sydney
  • Dymocks, Broadway. However, it has to be said that their romance section gets smaller and smaller every time I visit. Considering romance outsells every other genre, I think they’re missing an opportunity.

Do you have a favourite bricks’n’mortar bookshop? How do you think bricks’n’mortar stores can improve their game?


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20 thoughts on “The End of the World for Bookstores?

  1. Well, certainly can’t blame me for A&R’s demise. They closed their Coffs shop a few years ago and I was a regular customer. So in support of the local bookshops, I went to Book Warehouse yesterday and bought 3 books – 2 of them were impulse buys.

    I buy my mass market books at Big W (to make my book budget stretch further), the others at Book Warehouse/Dymocks or a local independent shop but if it’s an overseas book that has to be ordered in, it’s much cheaper and quicker for me to get it from Book Depository. I have an e-reader and again buy mainly overseas books in ebook format. And if the library gets in a book I want to read, I’ll borrow it instead of buying it.

    I think people will continue buying books in a variety of formats and through a variety of outlets.

  2. Vanessa, it’s scary, isn’t it? Although I must say most of my purchases these days are online (mainly Book Depository – as you say, it has so much going for it). And believe me, I buy a lot of books. I think it would be tragic if I couldn’t go and spend a couple of hours in a bookshop, though. They’re among my favourite places.

    • Hi, Anna! I feel the same way–bookstores can be such a sanctuary for book-lovers like us. If I’m a bit down about the writing caper, visiting a bookstore can cheer me right up again because I fantasise about seeing my own books on the shelves some day. A girl can dream, right? 🙂

  3. LOL, Diane. No, A&R can’t lay the blame on you. 🙂 I think you’re spot-on–people will continue to buy books. It’s all about convenience, too. It’s a challenging time for retailers and publishers right now.

    I like your strategy of buying local when possible. I sometimes pick up books from K-Mart and Target, and often their prices are 10% to 20% less than other stores.

  4. I buy most of my books at the local Barnes & Noble. But, I also buy a lot on Amazon. Actually, lately probably more on Amazon, because I’ll check my local B&N for a book and they won’t have it in the store. But I definitely like going to the stores more. I like to buy myself a coffee and wander the romance and bargain books section. We also have this huge Recycled Books near us with a plethra of books on every subject. Its an old opera house from 1901 and there are so many shelves you can get lost in there.

    On another subject: liking the smell of the ink on the pages must be a weird writer/avid reader thing. I swear, normal people don’t get it.

    • Hi there, Honoria. I’m so glad to know I’m not the only ink-sniffer around here. And is it just me, or does ink smell even more enticing when it’s printed on slightly rough paper?

      I would love to visit that Recycled Books store. It sounds heavenly! We have a local, two-level used bookstore that is positively stuffed with books. I’ve lost a few hours in there, too.

      Thanks for visiting!

      • Lol, I’ve never noticed the difference paper makes in the smell. And that book store is heaven and it’s three levels I think. Basement, first floor and second. I think people live in apartments on the other floors.

          • How fascinating, Jamie! I suppose they would use different species of timber for pulp or different recyclying materials, perhaps? My hubby has as a Japanese edition of a Mirukami. I’ll check this out when I get home!

          • Honoria, I just sniffed the Mirukami (printed in Japan) and compared it to books printed here and in the US. There is indeed a difference! I daresay the Japanese book has an earthy, organic aroma. Gosh, I feel so weird talking about this! 😉

          • Books are, or at least were when I was involved in making them, required to list their country of origin, so you always know where a book was printed and bound (those steps are usually handled in the same facility). That’s an import/export tax thing. But that doesn’t mean they use paper manufactured in that country. When we’d spec books for printing in Hong Kong, we’d always specify a Japanese paper (they’re known for high-quality paper). Sometimes our printing schedules were held up because we were waiting on the paper, so they definitely weren’t pulling a switcheroo. Besides, my boss could smell the difference!

          • You were a bookbinder, Jamie? What a dream job. A friend of mine was involved in restoring books in Ireland. The paper in the Mirukami book I’ve been harping on about has a wonderful texture and creamy colour. The flyleaf said only that it was printed in Japan (that was the sole English phrase in the whole book!)

          • Oh, no! I worked for a small publisher for several years, and I was involved the creative side of book production. We printed abroad, and though I was our US contact with the printer, I never got to go on press. I’ve heard it’s a very stressful but enlightening experience for anyone who works with books.

  5. Thanks, Eleni! Great to see another bookstore browser here. I’ve also been getting a few ebooks and reading them on my iPhone. It’s convenient when I’m commuting to and from work. I love gadgets, but nothing beats the feel of a real book.

  6. I’ve not bought a print books since my Kindle arrived two months ago. But I mainly shop at The Book Depository because of the huge prices retail bookstores charge. Why would I want to pay $35 for a new release when I can get the same book for half that amount overseas?
    The bookstores have had it good for a long time. They get large discounts from publishers and can send books back to the publishers when they don’t sell at their enormous prices. No other shops can do this, so why can bookshops?
    I do love walking around bookshops, but unless it’s a reference book, I’ll buy overseas where I can get more for my money.

    • Hi, Anne.

      It’s nice to support our local bookstores, but I agree–most of us shop around for the best price. Amazon started up way back in 1994 and quickly became a huge force in bookselling. Other companies continue to trade on outdated business models, but bellyache about competing with online sellers. It’s time to adapt.

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