It’s been three years since the collapse of major book chains Borders and Angus & Robertson, but the fate of the humble bookstore is not as clear-cut as once thought.
The threat of digital still looms, but a walk down Elsternwick's Glenhuntly Road in south-east Melbourne tells a more nuanced story.
Three independent bookstores still stand despite the rise of ebooks and online sales, which are blamed for upending the sector. But they are not unscathed by digital's rise.
The relatively quiet store ‘Out of Print Books Etc’. It is the quintessentially quaint bookshop, where the smell of old books lingers in the air, store sections are divided with handwritten notes, and stacks of books in almost every genre lying on tables and tucked away in corners. However, the real charm of the store comes from the manager.
Ken Cox used to work in the transport sector but abandon retirement plans to open a bookshop. He spends hours researching new books so he can provide adequate commentary and recommendations to customers and also searches for rare books that others have not been able to find. His son Mike joined the business as a partner in 1999 and both run the store.
They fastidiously keep the bookstore's online cataloguing section up-to-date on their website however customers have to phone in or email their orders. A system that brings relatively consistent sales, Ken says.
“I suppose it has been just about been the same really. There hasn’t been a big increase or decrease in [the sale of] fiction or non-fiction books [in the past 20 years],” he says.
But profit is not Ken’s main motivation.
“I’ve always been a book man,” he says. “So, when I retired about 20 years ago, I thought that I must do something for the rest of my life, and I might as well do something that I enjoy.”
Down the road from Out of Print Books Etc is Syber’s Books. For those who have watched the television series Black Books, the store will draw immediate comparison. It is dusty, dimly lit and cluttered with paintings and ornaments. Boxes full of rare and antiquated books are scattered all over the shop. There are 45,000 books on the shelves and 220,000 books in the building, the owners say.
Syber’s is more serious about its profit margins. David and Penny Syber own a second store in Chapel Street, Windsor, and have made an effort to tap into the digital market with a website. But for Syber’s, digital disruption is a double-edged sword.
“It has made it easier for you to go online and find a book that I don’t have,” Mr Sybers says. “That doesn’t mean we are a bad bookshop, it’s just that nobody has sold us a copy that is in good condition.”
He admits technology has had “slight impact” on his business, but concedes “without the online [sales] we couldn’t have the door open”.
The development of websites such as Amazon and Book Depository, which hold a massive catalogue of discounted books has disadvantaged traditional brick-and-mortar bookstore retailers.
Shops are crippled with expenses that do not hit these international online retailers, the most burdensome being postage costs. The Australian Book Association argues that it costs 10 times more to post a book from Penrith to Mosman (two Sydney suburbs separated by a 90-minute drive) than it does from UK to Sydney.
To compensate, Sybers pays an annual $600 membership fee with the Australian Booksellers Association to access cheaper shipping prices through a deal negotiated between the ABA and Australia Post. Among other perks, this grants him cheaper postage.
“Let’s say we want to send a two-kilo book to England, [it's] $32 [with the ABA discount]. I know that we would be paying $40 dollars per kilo [without the deal],” Mr Syber says.
While there are many commonalities between Out of Print Books Etc and Syber’s Books, what is most striking is that they are often bereft of customers. But this is not a sign that the independent bookstore is dead.
Also in Glenhuntly Road is the thriving Avenue Bookstore. It is the most contemporary of the three stores and also serves as a hub for book culture by regularly hosting Q&As with prominent authors in its Elsternwick and Albert Park stores. Avenue is also active on social media and run an online store.
Although it has ridden the digital wave, Elsternwick store manager Kate McFadyen is not concerned about not stocking ereaders. This is despite Roy Morgan Research showing ereader ownership in Australia has increased from 2 per cent in 2011 to 14.3 per cent by June 2014.
“We don’t sell ebooks or ereaders because we feel it is more our speciality to be equipped to sell good books” she says.
“A lot of our customers have both, so they will read books and have a device for when they are travelling, so it hasn’t impacted on us in a huge way.
“There are certain books that are better in a print form, and more practical … we find especially with children as we have lots of younger people who really like the tactile quality of the book, and they actually prefer it to the tablet
“It is a more complicated [issue] than the media portray it to be.”
What does all of this prove?
For starters, the prediction Labor Senator Nick Sherry made in 2011 when he was small business minister that bookstores will cease to exist in five years will undoubtedly fall flat. According to the Australian Bookstore Association’s chief executive Joel Becker, there are more than 900 dedicated bookstores in Australia, and most of their managers are obstinately fighting for survival.
The success of Avenue Bookstore highlights the fact there are still opportunities for the independents to make money -- provided they are managed well, progressive and willing to adapt to digital changes.
And Syber’s and Out of Print Books Etc are examples that independent bookstores will continue to exist, even if they are supported by their managers’ pocket and driven by a love of books, rather than financial gain.