2014 / Saturday

Are Bookshops’ Days Numbered?

Lucy Rennick

Despite the emergence of electronic books, bookshops are often at the heart of a community.

Despite the emergence of electronic books, bookshops are often at the heart of a community.

In an increasingly digital age dominated by screens and downloadable goods, the number of independent Sydney booksellers forced to close their doors is as unsurprising as it is dismaying.

Long-time independents are feeling the sting of an unforgiving retail climate, exacerbated by all-pervasive smartphones and tablets that are now small and powerful enough to replace books almost entirely.

Newtown’s branch of Berkelouw Books packed up shop in September last year, despite having survived the gentrification of surrounding areas during the early 2000s.
Barbara Horgan from Shearer’s Bookshop in Leichhardt took her business online earlier this year due to rental increases, and will cease in-house trading at the end of the month.

Both are examples of retailers succumbing to the pressures of overhead costs related to running a business.

Lesley McKay’s Bookstore in Woollahra has narrowly escaped a similar fate. Confronted by a costly lease renewal and shrinking revenue, store owner Ms McKay faced the prospect of bringing her 45-year business to an end.

“We couldn’t renew our lease and we felt we had no other option but to close,” she says. “There was such huge outcry from the public that I decided that if I could find a site quickly, I would reopen. Fortunately, an ideal shop came up around the corner with cheaper rent and I managed to negotiate a lease.”

The plight of independent booksellers arises at a time when the amount of material we are able absorb is limited by the constant crush of a busy life, and the lack of space on our bookshelves. It is now easier than ever to declutter, compress and condense our reading material into palm-sized digital form, with myriad publications available for consumption at the click of a button.

Those moving into a cosy, one-bedroom inner-city terrace may delight in the space saved with their e-readers, but what do these technological changes mean for bibliophiles and booksellers like Lesley McKay?

“Bookshops are often the heart of a community,” Ms McKay says. “The e-book is an incredible invention, but it is in competition with the bookshops. A lot of bookshops are closing, and more people are understanding that if they want to save them, they’ve got to support them.”

Susan Wyndham, literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald and self-proclaimed booklover, remains optimistic about the potential decline of print.

“Books have a certain magic about them, and I think they’re convenient as anything,” she says. “Five years ago people were saying that books will vanish, that they will all become digital, but I think the whole thing is about settling into niches rather than digital wiping out print altogether.
“There are signs that both can coexist; digital books will have their place, but books will survive in their typical form.”

When asked how e-books and digital publications have affected their respective careers, Ms Wyndham and Ms McKay both remarked on the need for diversification and flexibility in a fast-changing industry. Whilst their loyalty to hard-copy print remains steadfast, they each say an augmented online presence is a continuing and important goal.

The changes taking place in the literary world are difficult to ignore, and whether or not they can be attributed to people actually reading less is still a point of contention within the industry.

David Gaunt, owner of Glebe Point Road fixture Gleebooks since 1977, doesn’t see a correlation between bookstores closing down and people buying fewer hard-copy titles. Instead, the challenges bookstore owners face are fuelled by online booksellers and their capacity to disrupt the retail landscape.

“The question is not whether hard-copy books are in decline, it’s how they’re being bought,” he says. “The advent of online-only retailers has had a profound impact on the industry because online-only retailing generally means that things are cheaper, and we’re caught in a bind of not being able to match prices that people selling online can offer.”

Amazon, the most formidable player in the game, is able to dominate the market with lower prices and few, if any, overhead costs associated with owning a shopfront.

“Amazon has really cannibalised the bricks and mortar bookshops,” Ms Wyndham says. “It’s hard for independent booksellers to discount very much because they have to pay GST. Overseas online booksellers don’t have to pay GST, so they have an advantage already.”
Amazon’s empire is certainly a concerning development, especially for those who find a unique kind of joy in exploring bookstores for hours on end.

The thought of a future devoid of places like Gleebooks and Lesley McKay’s Bookshop is worrisome, but I am reminded by Susan Wyndham that it pays to remain hopeful. “It’s not completely disastrous, let’s just say that,” she says. “The world is not ending yet.”