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: