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In Defence of Independent Bookstores

If you want to look into the future of books and publishing, the record industry makes for a pretty good crystal ball. The iPod took music out of the physical into the digital in the same way e-books will take books off the page.

The documentary I Need That Record looks at how music stores in the States have been gutted by the changes in music, not only by MP3 downloads but also by 'big box chains'. These stores stock the big records (the doco says 1 in 5 albums sold in the US goes through a Walmart checkout) at lower prices because of their huge volumes.

If you followed the recent parallel importation debate then you'll see similarities big bookstores and big box chains. Does it follow that independent bookstore will be pushed out by the evil machinations of the big stores and the unstoppable march of e-books?

For me the answer is: not so much. Independent bookstores remain a sensual and social experience that will be tough to replace. Going to a bookstore is as much about physically browsing. As smart as Amazon's 'Customer's Who Bought This Item Also Bought' metadata is, it's no replacement for mooching around the fiction section and skimming novels yourself. Or the serendipitous eye-catching of a face-out cover or flipping through several books without laggy downloads.

But the real trump card of a good bookstore are smart staff who can bookishly shoot the breeze. Industry speak calls this handselling, but really it's about that trustworthy human connection with someone who can really talk books. It's an idea so good Borders swiped it. Sure I could be flipping through the reviews on Library Thing or Good Reads because I get that books create communities of trusted readers, but I'd still rather chat to a human who I know isn't a publishing company shill or, worse, a Twillight fan.

Independent bookshops create communites around books. And the smart ones run reading groups or events to strengthen these communities and give their staff a good discounts or advance copies so they're on top of the latest books. Investing in the physical aspect of the bookstore is the point of difference that gives them a future.

Some of the saddest moments in I Need That Record are when book store staff and customers talk about what losing their store means to them. But this isn't the cultural apocalypse because some of these survivors have started Independent Record Store Day. On April 17th the physical record store will be celebrated with exclusive releases (like a thousand copies of the new Beastie Boys vinyl for crazed collectors) and artists spruiking their favourite store. It's either the last gasp of a dinosaur or the rennaisance of leaving the house for music, but an independent book shop day could rally readers behind the book.

What's released on Record Store Day? Chris Brown from Bull Moose tells all: 


  1. In typically egocentric fashion, I can't help myself from pointing out the fact that the ONLY place you can get the books of mine which remain in print is at Borders. Readings stock no Condons at all; you can get The Slap at every one of them, though, which is a great relief. Good job, Readings!

  2. I taught a highly intelligent group of teenagers recently at a seminar and one of the eight students wowed us by saying she already had an iPad. I was agog and wanted to know what the reading experience was like. She said it wasn't anywhere near as good as holding a book in her hand and one of the other boys said there'll never be anything to replace a 'real book'.

    I don't recount this to say the upcoming generation won't buy ebooks, but I do think it backs up your comments that there's more to reading than just the text on the page.

  3. I had a thought... something a little Amazon-taking-over-the-world-esque, but stay with me...

    Why not get Amazon to work with local book shops and when/if (!!) shoppers prefer to buy online after browsing joyously instore, maybe they could note where they found the book in the first place, on a physical shelf, via a post code search or something. Book shops could sign up to the service and get some sort of incentive....? This 'heads up' could give the customer a 10% discount or something?

    Hmmm... Just a thought that popped into my head anyway!


  4. Great idea and probably possible with the current Amazon affiliates program where traffic is rewarded by Amazon with credit. The traffic from a mobile should be geo-located so easy to tie it to a specific bookstore.


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