Bookstores shake off their leather jacket

Published in The Australian and the Business Spectator.

It’s been three years since the collapse of major book chains Borders and Angus & Robertson, and now the fate of the humble bookstore isn’t as clear-cut as once thought.

The threat of the e-book and online bookstores still looms, but a walk down Elsternwick’s Glenhuntly Rd in southeast Melbourne tells a more nuanced story.

Three independent bookstores still stand despite the rise of digital competitors blamed for upending the sector. But they haven’t escaped completely unscathed.

On the quieter end of Glenhuntly Rd is the relatively quiet Out of Print Books Etc bookshop.

It is an archetypically quaint bookshop. The smell of old pages lingers in the air, store sections are divided by handwritten notes and stacks of books are 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 abandoned retirement plans to open a bookshop. He will spend hours researching new books so he can confidently recommend them to customers. He will also search tirelessly in order to find rare books that customers have not been able to find. His son Mike joined the business as a partner in 1999.

Ken and Mike fastidiously keep the bookstore’s online cataloguing section up-to-date on their website, although customers have to phone in or email their orders. It is 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.

Industry statistics tell a different story. While the revenue for bookstores has declined at an annual rate of 8.5 per cent, online book sales have increased by 26 per cent since 2009.

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 TV 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 old books are scattered all over the shop. The owners say there are 45,000 books on the shelves and 220,000 books in the building.

Syber’s is more serious about its profit margins. Owners David Syber and Penny Merritt have a second store on Chapel St, 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 Syber 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 that technology has made a “slight impact” on his business, but concedes that “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 bricks-and-mortar retailers.

Shops are crippled with expenses that do not hit international online retailers, the most burdensome being postage costs. The Australian Book Association says 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, Syber’s 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 2kg book to England, [it’s] $32 [with the ABA discount]. I know that we would be paying $40 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 both stores are often bereft of customers. But this is not a sign that the independent bookstore is dead.

On the other end of Glenhuntly Rd is the thriving Avenue Bookstore.

It is the most contemporary of the three stores. It has employed a host of young staff members, the books are immaculately presented and Q&As with prominent authors are regularly held at both the Elsternwick and Albert Park branches of the store. The Avenue is also active on social media and they run a successful online store.

Although it has ridden the digital wave, Elsternwick store manager Kate McFadyen is not concerned about not stocking e-readers. This is despite Roy Morgan Research showing e-reader ownership in Australia has increased from 2 per cent in 2011 to 14.3 per cent by June 2014.

“We don’t sell e-books or e-readers 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 would cease to exist in five years will undoubtedly fall flat. According to the Australian Bookstore Association 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 of the fact that independent bookstores will continue to exist, even if they are driven by a love of books, rather than financial gain.

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