Book some time to browse the shelves
Bookshops will not stop serving readers' needs even in an age when sales of e-books are rising.
Bookshops will not stop serving readers' needs even in an age when sales of e-books are rising. SATURDAY is National Bookshop Day, celebrating the unique role of the bookshop in Australia's retail, literary and cultural community. Twelve months ago, this would have hardly rated a mention. No federal minister would have questioned the ongoing viability of bookshops or suggested that people who went into bricks-and-mortar shops were ''one of a dying breed''.In the last year there has been sustained media speculation about the death of the bookshop as the e-book phenomenon received extensive coverage: a large bookshop chain went bust and online overseas retailers sold books in an exchange-rate bubble.Some facts seem to have been lost in the reportage. According to industry sources, e-books accounted for just over 1 per cent of book sales in Australia in 2010. That share will grow significantly in the next few years, with estimates that downloads will represent 15 per cent of total book sales in the Australian market by 2020. Despite suggestions to the contrary, physical books will continue to sell and bookshops will cater to the growing and changing demand of their customer base.The collapse of REDGroup (A & R chain shops and Borders) was the result of an unsustainable business model. REDGroup was financed by a private equity company, Pacific Equity Partners, and predominantly located in high-rental shopping centres. The fairest comparison when discussing the collapse of REDGroup is not other bookshops but the Colorado group of retail clothing stores, another private-equity-backed business largely located in suburban shopping centres. Yet no one is suggesting the demise of shoe shops.Virtually all bookshops in Australia - and that includes franchise operations Dymocks and Collins Booksellers - are independently owned. It is worth noting that virtually all of the 50 or so ex-A & R franchise shops - locally owned by booksellers around the country - continue to survive and thrive.Since the closure of REDGroup shops, there has been a significant upturn in sales from independent and franchise shops, with reports of sales increases of between 15 per cent and 40 per cent in areas where there was direct competition.So, what is good about local bookshops and why buy locally? In 2010 more than 66 million books were sold in the Australian retail trade, representing more than $1.25 billion in sales. Overseas research shows that nearly 70 per cent of every dollar spent in a locally owned business stays in the community. I cannot even begin to approximate the social capital that is gained by shopping locally, by connecting with community - neighbours, local shopkeepers, parents from the local school.When buying from overseas, the likelihood is that the American packing up the parcel to send back to the Australian consumer is earning not much more than $15,000 a year (with no superannuation, universal healthcare or long-service leave). Books might be cheaper under a similar award here, but who would want to work under those conditions?Let's not lose sight of why people love bookshops, and the randomness of the browsing experience. How many times have you walked into a bookshop looking for a particular book and walked out with something unexpected? Sometimes that can be discovered on your own other times with the help of knowledgable staff who ''hand-sell'' authors that might otherwise not get the attention they deserve. This cannot be replicated with algorithms.Booksellers are committed to fostering reading and ensuring that bookshops are a place to discover ideas, to be stimulated, to be challenged and to be entertained. They are part of the bedrock of the community. They encourage kids to read. Nearly 25 per cent of books sold in Australia last year were children's books.Bookshops of the future will provide all the bricks-and-mortar services that are currently offered. Bookshops have already embraced social media to build online communities. Over the coming months, more and more shops will also provide online ordering facilities and e-book purchasing, complementing their existing services, with some even developing in-store kiosks to cater to their customers' requirements.Books will continue to be read on a variety of platforms - the book, the iPad, the e-Reader - and bookshops will continue their time-honoured role of servicing readers' needs. Booksellers are rightly celebrating their place in the community. Drop into your local shopping centre. Enjoy an experience that cannot be replicated in any other way. Celebrate your local bookshop.Joel Becker is chief executive of the Australian Booksellers Association.