Meanland Blog — How I buy books: future, past, present
I have a dream: to travel the world, visiting its unorthodox bookstores. First stop is a shop on Newtown’s King Street titled Better Read Than Dead. Next is a secret room tucked away in New York that is possibly not secret anymore, thanks to Paris Review and others. Third port of call is The Book Barge, which floats along UK waterways.
So here’s where I admit to being naive. When I wrote for Meanland on how I read now, I was not sensitive to our stores and the way they are hurting.
No one said it aloud; I saw it in the quiet way booksellers were retreating. As if I had waved away their concerns with an internet-driven hand. I might be buying cheaply from Book Despository and Amazon but whose place had the giants taken? Did I not remember my weekly visits with once tiny boys and the small rocking horse that my elder son used to ride on? Isn’t it curious that my sons are likely to play-up elsewhere, just not in a room shelved with paper spines? How often was I visiting my local bookstore? Hadn’t I once been loyal?
When I heard Borders was going down, part of me was smug. After all, this American leviathan had come to Australia to knock our Independents off their feet. Conveniently I forgot hours spent in the literature section of a massive Jam Factory store ten years ago as my beau (now my husband) knelt in front of Lord of the Rings collector editions as if paying homage to the greatest storyteller of all time. I ignored that through my visits, I was buoying this read-and-drink-coffee outlet while smaller mustier shelved shops remained empty, waiting for their patrons to return. The Borders fascination didn’t last long. Soon we grew weary of bright lights and a barrage of calendars. Books seemed classier and more intelligent when purchased from Readings Carlton or the Brunswick Bookstore. Plus, author-friends were launching first books. I left Australia at this time. When I came back, I became more intimate with Readings Hawthorn, where Stephanie Alexander once spoke to an audience of at least fifty women on the importance of growing up in a food-loving household. Soon I settled in the burbs where the range of books wasn’t quite as vast as what I had known.
My online buying frenzy began almost through default. I had stumbled on Mo Willems in our local library. His Elephant & Piggy Books tickled my then learning-to-read son’s funny bone. I travelled from bookstore to bookstore trying to access every one of the series from the New York Times bestselling author and illustrator. His latest titles were only available – my local bookshop tried but to no avail – through Amazon.
Enter Book Depository with their free shipping and ‘About Us’ web page wording, which if I remember correctly, had the company sounding like a charity. If I wanted to order a novel or picture book online and feel good about it, Book Depository was for me.
In the space of two years, how I bought changed. Book Depository was cheap (if we ignore Australia Post picking up the tab – which we taxpayers later pay – as soon as books arrive in our country) and easy. I could buy hardbacks, paperbacks, rare books and ones with pictures from the comfort of my couch. Instead of ordering overseas titles online and shopping locally for Australian titles, I was gorging it all through the web.
One night I itched to read a novel then and there. I was on Amazon. A couple of clicks later, Simon Mawer’s The Glass House was on my iPhone. Quickly I moved through the novel’s early chapters, my finger gliding across the screen as if through water. Soon, I wanted more. Surprisingly, more came in the form of a traditional book which I bought from my local store.
When Angus and Robertson announced their closure, I was not perturbed. Another chain. I had no real connection. Then Amazon took over Book Depository. Something in me snapped. The people of Amazon could not tell me, face-to-face, which books they were fond of and what I might like. They could not present my gifts in wrapping I chose, nor did they have an array of good-looking cards should I wish to buy something more than a book while visiting. That weekend, after coffee and macaroons in Cavallini, I strolled with a friend into the Clifton Hill Bookstore, my children hurtling down to the back to throw themselves on corner cushions. I bought four junior books (surprisingly, each cost less than fifteen dollars), three handmade cards and a gorgeous material bookmark, a funky pink donkey stitched across its face.
What gets at my guts is that Readers’ Feast will soon close its doors. Only a month ago, on walking from Bourke onto Swanston Street, I touted the bookstore as one of Melbourne’s sunken treasures. Ashamedly, I did not usher my family down the escalators for a peep. If I had I may have told them I saw the author Audrey Niffenegger speak here of first books which she printed and bound by hand in batches of ten. A friend of mine – an academic and writer now living in Berlin – adored working in this cantina of books. When we both studied creative writing at the University of Melbourne, I would visit. Store aisles were like Thai market canals where I could pluck whichever exotic fruit I liked. I am still afraid to email her the news lest I hear her pain. Hers will be an ugly cry, as if part of her is being removed.
If I buy organic food locally even though it’s triple the cost of conventional supermarket goods, I do so to enjoy produce without pesticides, shop ethically and to ensure my local organic store will exist to serve me tomorrow. As a mother and reader I am wondering: how can I extend this kind of thinking to cover the local purchase of tree books? Which choices do I want available in my family’s future? Will I continue to pour cash into the big guns’ pockets or will I support the small stores? If I’m to put my money where my heart is, then I will cherish independent bookstores. I will visit as often as I can, and buy what I can afford.
Considering what’s now on show at your local bookstore, you might like to do the same. Flipbacks were launched in Australia last week. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, they are flimsy in the best sense of the word. Made of bible-like paper, they flip back rather than turn. Coming in at $19.95, I bought David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas last weekend. Amazingly, it’s very light. When my fingertips brush over wafer-thin pages, it fans out a feathery wind.
- Alien Onion
- Ampersand Duck
- Andrew McDonald
- A Pair of Ragged Claws
- Arts Victoria
- Australia Council for the Arts
- Bookshow blog
- City of Tongues
- darkly wise, rudely great
- David Astle
- Dorothy Johnston
- Elmo Keep Does Stuff
- The Ember
- Going Down Swinging
- Griffith Review
- Killings blog
- Lorraine Crescent
- Lynden Barber
- Mandy Ord
- Marcus Westbury
- Melbourne University Publishing
- Mel Campbell
- The Monthly
- Musings of an Inappropriate Woman
- Oslo Davis
- Paul Callaghan
- Read, Think, Write
- Right Now
- Sleepers Publishing
- Sorrow at Sills Bend
- The Stella Prize
- Tom Cho
- Wheeler Centre
22 Jul 11 at 16:22
I’m sorry I can’t stand by and see local bookstores lionised for their convenience and comfy seating arrangements. Book selling is a business. Sure there is a greater than average attachment that book buyers feel for their local store but the loyalty extends only so far. A few poor service experiences at Readings involving 20-somethings who fancied themselves authors-in-the-making-manning-the-counter-because-I-need-to-pay-the-rent turned me right off. Combine that with pricing which is almost half that of an imported or even locally produced paperback and I’ll choose online whether it be Amazon or Amazon-owned BD. If independent bookstores value you as much as you seem to value them Diana then they will lift their game and offer you more than suitable cushions for your children. Why should you have miss out on a book or magazine because the local channel can’t compete? Next people will start advocating for taxpayer subsidies. ‘If you really cared about the existence of your local you wouldn’t begrudge them a few dollars a month’. Good grief!...
22 Jul 11 at 16:27
Perhaps you should try and imagine a world in which all the bookstores are gone. Cherish them while they are here, NBS. You might miss them if they go....
22 Jul 11 at 17:22
Geez NBS, can you order ‘chill pills’ online? Diane, I’m of the belief that indie bookstores will benefit from the chains closures. The people who shopped at large chains were just looking to save money, and since online is cheaper they’ve gone there. Indie bookstores managed to still eek out an existence in the shadows of the large chains even though they were always more expensive due to lack of buying power in comparison. What I like about the indies (Better Read Than Dead, Gleebooks) is that you have staff who can read and recommend. Anyone simply looking to buy a book can check the NY Times Best Seller list, then jump to Amazon / BD. But I like handing a book over the counter and having an intelligent discussion with the staff, listening to their ad-libbed reviews and suggestions for similar books. This kept the small stores going before and will continue to do so. I regret the elitism that affronted NBS, I guess I’ve been lucky....
22 Jul 11 at 20:49
Yes it’s a business, but the beauty of the marketplace mean that the good bookshops – the ones that adapt and give us reasons to go there – will survive.
I buy almost all everything from abebooks.com these days. I can make those late night ‘I-want-it-now’ purchases online, knowing the order is dispatched the next morning by a real-life bookshop, usually in Australia....
22 Jul 11 at 23:27
Sad as it is, Reader’s Feast was run by the same company that ran Borders and A&R. So, alas, they go down with the rest of the ship.
People always seem to forget that Borders and A&R gave jobs to people who love books. It’s easy to brush off the collapse of a major chain as unimportant when you ignore all the people who’ve probably lost their only chance at making books their livelihood....
25 Jul 11 at 10:59
I bought my most recent book from a bricks & mortar shop (the fabulous Folios in Brisbane) even though I knew I could get it cheaper online because I wanted the book right then (not a few days or a week later) & also because I love browsing in the shop & I want it to be there for me to browse in. I do buy books online but I figure the ‘browsing’ is a service they give to me for free & I’m happy to pay extra for a book every now and then to enjoy that browsing experience....
25 Jul 11 at 11:10
If the only thing ‘real’ bookshops offer is the quirk and patina of the physical browsing experience, perhaps the online vendors should license shopfront book cafes which stock only ‘review’ copies of a representative sample of available works, but allow orders to be placed online.
If you’re Amazon and you can match a genuine bookshop with a stylish Kindle sales point, it has to be a winner....
25 Jul 11 at 11:19
Independent bookstores will survive because they have great events where you can listen to authors and engage with them, they have staff who read and will help you, they have interesting books, etc etc. I buy books online, but I also buy them from independent stores, because I want them to survive. I love browsing their beautiful shelves. And I forgive the occasional brash bookshop assistant, because we’re all human....
25 Jul 11 at 11:32
Maybe if bookshops are essentially selling a lifestyle experience – a kind of intellectual equivalent of latte and macarons – they need to find a way of generating revenue from this: maybe a subscription service? I’d guess 80% of bookshop clientele never ask staff for recommendations or advice anyway, so it’s all down to the ambience and papery aroma....
25 Jul 11 at 11:44
As an afterthought: don’t online book sellers also just add to the total market? Book thought of and bought, all in five minutes, rather than book thought of, and then forgotten about long before the next bookshop heaves into view?...
25 Jul 11 at 11:57
Book thought of, and bought?
What of the adventure of finding a book in a store? Isn’t that part of the experience? Margaret Atwood speaks of this kind of book buying in an article on media diets for Atlantic Wire: ‘Some of the books that have been quite valuable to me I’ve picked off second-hand sales shelves. I’ve just stumbled across them.’
26 Jul 11 at 18:05
I can’t see independents like Better Read Than Dead and Gleebooks who run a quality operation (and are seen as institutions) being threatened by online bookselling. Smaller businesses, sure. And opening your own indie bookshop is unlikely to be a viable venture any time soon. That said, I must be one of the last readers out there who doesn’t buy books online. I haven’t felt the need yet....