Blame the Bookstore Month

Another week, another round of articles about the death of the independent bookstore. This round has been precipitated by the announcement that the Flying Dragon Bookshop at Bayview & Eglinton will be closing its doors within a month or two, despite having just won the 2011 Libris Award for ‘Specialty Bookseller of the Year’ from the Canadian Booksellers Association.  The tone of the response has probably been shaped by Flying Dragon’s assertion that they simply don’t want to adapt – “at the end of the day we realized that for us, it was all about the books and the tactile, sensory experience they [books] provide.” says their blog.

Last week I responded to Natalee Caple’s assertion that clinging to the old conception of “book” is elitist (or at least hegemonic). This week I see similar claims being made by Amy Lavender Harris over at Open Book Toronto in her article “Authors of our own Misfortune: the Death and Afterlife of Bookselling in Toronto“.  They both speak of a resistance on the part of booksellers to embrace new technology.  Well, I’d like to address a couple of the misconceptions that seem to underline this stance.

1. Independent bookstores in Canada can not sell ebooks.

I’ve said this before and I will say it again.  We aren’t resisting ebooks (much).  We’re not failing to adapt.  We are simply not able to distribute ebooks.  Publishers will not sell them to us.  Big ebook distribution schemes like Google eBooks don’t have Canadian rights set up yet (and may never).  To sell ebooks bookstores and publishers would need to arrive at an agreement as to how to track, sell, and remit for digital rights and so far, it appears to me as if publishers are not putting bringing independents into the loop as a top priority.  Amazon, Kobo, Apple and Google, with their internal programmers, have come up with a scheme for them, and publishers simply need to sign on the dotted line.  No independent has the resources to develop such a scheme.

2. Believe it or not, not all customers are clamouring for ebooks.

A short anecdote. Last year we had a professor order through us a book for his course, a collection of Robert Louis Stevenson’s short stories. The only available edition was a cheap, cheap Dover, but it was also available free online.  So we ordered far fewer copies of this book than others, thinking students would just read it online or download the ebook.  A foolish decision, it turns out, because the students overwhelmingly wanted the “real thing”.  It wasn’t the nature of the book that deters customers: it’s the price. When the price is low enough (in this case, less than $3 CDN) they want the real book every time. Converting to a cafe/event space with a few “display copies” of books would not be serving the interests of the customer.

3. “Local” is a geographic term. It has little meaning on the internet.

Everything that makes an independent bookstore great is dependent on meat-space.  We curate specific collections tailored to our customers. We provide the service of a conversational, knowledgeable bookseller who knows the stock and can help you find or choose the right book.  We bring cultural events into your local neighbourhood.

An independent which goes whole-hog into ebooks isn’t going to be able to offer these things for very long, especially when one of the chief advantages to ebooks is the fact that you can buy them from home, or, really, anywhere you want.  I question the value of a “store” which is, essentially, an empty space used for occasional events where a bookseller is made available for advice. Perhaps my customers are unusually skittish, but they want to be left alone to browse and hide in the stacks until they require my advice.  If I didn’t offer them books to browse, they’d shop from home. Books have a small mark-up – 20-40%.  Driving customers out of the shop would quickly make the space a waste of time and money.  Once I am online only, then what?  What value am I bringing to my neighbourhood? What makes me different from Amazon?


I am beginning to suspect that you can’t have your cake and eat it too.  Independent bookstores are a specific business – we are a physical space containing actual humans who sell physical books.  Ebook sellers are something else – no space, no humans, and no books.  Which is great, but it’s just not the same business.  A farmer who decides to sell condos on his land isn’t “adapting”, he’s getting out of the farming business.  None of the value of a farmer has been retained in the change.

So, okay, ebooks are fab for a lot of things, like staying in your house, saving your money for some non-book-purchase, and saving shelf-space for some non-book storage.  But can we not kid ourselves? There’s nothing to this product or paradigm that benefits someone whose skill, whose vocation, whose livelihood is to know, identify, recommend and sell books.  We still have a use, but it’s to offer all those things ebooks don’t require.   Maybe the future is better off without this middleman; maybe readers don’t need curators or trusted local experts. That could be. But we can’t be blamed for wanting to maintain our vocations.

ETA: Navneet Alang adds another voice calling for the circumvention of the traditional bookstore.  To which I say, the Type/TINARS model is certainly one way to engage in literary culture, but I’d argue that both are supported by a particular set of people. Youngish literary types – writers and publishing folks for the most part or I’ll eat my hat – who enjoy the “scene” and, collectively, can support probably one such store.  I’m not convinced the average reader has much interest in carving a social life out of this (hip, trendy) literary scene per se.  I certainly don’t. I read books for a lot of reasons, but a big one is because parties and social functions scare the bejeezus out of me and I’m much happier curled up with a book in the company of my family.  Again, the skittishness and stoic browsing stance of my regular customers leads me to believe this model would serve, at least, my customers very poorly.

8 Responses to Blame the Bookstore Month

  1. Ruth Seeley says:

    Great post, Charlotte. As you know, I finally bought an eReader at the end of last year. It has two great advantages over pBooks: size/weight and instant gratification – the ability to buy a book and not have to wait even 3-5 days for delivery if it isn’t in stock at my local bookseller. But that’s it, truly. There’s something very hollow about the eReading experience, and I’m not sure I can put my finger on what it is except to say that it’s a lot like the difference between virtual friendships and real friendships – 2D is not, and will never be, 3D.

    I was in one of my local used bookstores the other day and had a conversation with the guy who runs it about getting his catalogue online. He said something interesting to me, which was, ‘You know what? It might increase our sales. But it would also increase our workload. Right now one person can easily run this place. If I were to put up even a blog web site I’d need help, and all the problems that ensue with hiring, supervising, and keeping staff.’ And he was absolutely right.

    I think it’s really important to remember that not all bookstores – even when part of the same chain – are created equal or are the same. Traffic and buying patterns can vary widely even when two bookstores that are part of the same chain are located within 15 minutes walking distance of each other. That’s precisely where the curator needs to know her/his stuff in terms of providing the appropriate staffing levels and the right mix of merchandise to ensure survival.

  2. rpriske says:

    Point 3 is HUGE. I can’t understand why anyone would EVER buy an eBook at a physical store. It makes no sense to me. Is it cheaper then buying it off the internet? It had better be, otherwise why go to the store?

    If I want a REAL book, however, goign to a store over buying it on line offers actual advantages.

    • kunakida says:

      Why anyone would ever buy an eBook at a physical store.

      1) because they don’t want to hand their money directly over to a purely US owned company
      2) because they don’t want to use VISA (high fees and again, US-based)
      3) because browsing the shelves lets you find interesting books which you can then take home as an eBook to read.
      4) because reading a few pages can tell you if the book is good or not
      5) because most bookstores also sell coffee (mmm, cafe with books)
      6) because they might meet someone with similar interests while wandering the aisles
      7) because of the helpful staff recommendations
      8) because if the book is really good, they might want the Hardcover version instead/also
      9) because they were at the bookstore already buying something else
      10) because it gives them something to do while their significant other is shopping next door.
      11) because they only found the physical book for a later issue in a series and they want to read the earlier ones to get caught up

      Personally, I like going to bookstores and would love to buy eBooks there.

      Note that Danish bookstores are going for the idea

      So yes, I could make my own coffee at home and buy eBooks from a webpage,
      but then I wouldn’t be able to have the bookstore experience.

      Think about Starbucks and all the other coffee stores.
      Why buy from them (specially at their prices) if you can make better at home?

      Why go to a movie theatre, restaurant, etc… and then pay more?

      It is all about the experience.

  3. Kerry says:

    Something I’ve really appreciated is a system like the one at Mabel’s Fables where I can find out online if a book is in stock. I realize I am supposed to walk into the store and wander aimlessly until I find something that suits my fancy, but I’m an informed book-buyer on a limited budget, and I know what I want, and Mabel’s system helps me with that. I also appreciate bookstores that seem to appreciate my patronage– good customer service is important in any kind of store. You’re so right that most of your customers don’t want your advice unsolicited, but if I want to spend my money in your shop, I hope you will go out of your way to allow me to do so. So many don’t, and it frustrates me because I want to give them my money so badly!!

    • Charlotte says:

      Agreed! I should clarify though, I meant to contrast a hands-off approach to bookselling (recognizing that many customers want to browse quietly without being pressured to buy) with the stand-in-line-and-make-your-order environment which would inevitably persevere if bookstores no longer had, well, any books in them. Bookstores are sometimes as much about wanting to spend time in a calming environment surrounded by old friends as they are about buying things. Type’s very-social approach is a good one for some kinds of people, but not all.

      I like the idea of keeping an online catalogue, actually, but the owners here resist it – they feel it would only allow people to price-shop and, inevitably, we would always lose the sale to Amazon’s endless bargains. It’s possible that amounts to paranoia, but that’s sort of our modus operandi around here. 😉

      But we’re also off the beaten track (e.g. totally hidden from view) enough that almost all our customers are regulars, and we know what to suggest to them and when. New faces sometimes throw us for a loop, but I like to think we’ve got a pretty good record of helping and ordering for people. 🙂

  4. John Mutford says:

    Interesting post. Just a theory, but do you think eBooks could actually save the independent store in the long run? I mean, I agree with your point that it seems rather silly to go into a store to buy an eBook, sales figures suggest that eBooks are beginning to represent the majority of shoppers and it’s the minority that likes to own the actual book. But Chapters surely can’t survive selling to the minority can they? They’re too big and have too many overhead costs. However, couldn’t the smaller stores survive with the niche market? I’m hoping that in a few years the pendulum will swing the other way and the indie booksellers will thrive. You may say I’m a dreamer.

    • Charlotte says:

      I don’t think eBooks and meat-space stores are in any way compatible. Chapters is, I think, discovering this first: at least here in Toronto, they are losing money on the book end. This is a large part of why they are shifting their focus to becoming a “book lover’s lifestyle store”, i.e. are going to be selling ever-more “gift” items. They are undercutting themselves with their own Kobo sales.

      The way I’d suggest the data can be read is that ebooks will continue to serve the “majority” buyer, but that those people are “Indigo-type” customers buying, for the most part, bestsellers. More serious readers (yes, imo, the “elite”) tend to have more intimate relationships with their books, and to boot, are more likely to think of having a library as a mark of status. These types of readers were always the minority, but I think there are enough of them to support some very good independent bookstores.

      But as I’ve said before, I think it depends on how the publishing industry reacts to the division of readers. It depends if they think it is worth their while to continue producing small numbers of paper books when the majority of their actual sales will come from digital bestsellers. It depends if they are willing to maintain the current bookselling model (complete with returns) to help us survive.

      What I fear, really, is that a perfectly good market of paper-book lovers will be forced, essentially, to move to ebooks because the producers don’t think there are enough of them to justify printing paper books. This kind of “democracy” – letting the market “vote” on what kind of books we’ll get in the future and then pressing them on everyone – is to be avoided.

  5. Steph says:

    Excellent post. I’m personally tired of the adapt or die ideas; too many people don’t realize that we simply can’t afford to implement many or most of these ideas, like putting in a cafe (we hear that one a lot!). We have been carrying a few more things other than books, but aside from cards, we don’t sell many gift items often.

    As a bookseller, I resonated most with point 2. My experience is that it’s not that people necessarily prefer to read a book on a screen or that having tons of books at their fingertips is all that important. It keeps coming down to price. I still can’t get over how many refuse to buy hardcovers not because of their being cumbersome but because even 28.00 is expensive to them, let alone 32.50 or 35.00. I rarely sell one, but I do still sell them. And yet if we did away with carrying them, how would anyone get a new release? I still wish everything could just be trade and mm, but that’s for sales; I have some very lovely hardcovers that I would not want in any other format.

    It concerns me that we’re constantly losing sales because we can’t get a book in fast enough for someone so they just go elsewhere, but mostly that so many are unwilling to pay the price for a hardcover or trade. I think that if we didn’t cater so much to schools, and carry cards, we’d have been done for long ago.

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