For some time local businesses have found themselves diminishing thanks to large shopping chains and online retailers. Local bookshops are no exception to the rule.
In Stranger Things season three, town members protest against the ’80s consumerist shift to the one-stop-shop and cultural sphere: the shiny new shopping centre. These days, shopping centres have been superseded by online shopping, group buys and giants such as Amazon and Wish, buoyed by cheap labour and free delivery, proving that there is no physical space big or cheap enough that the internet can’t provide.
If shopping centres are feeling the pinch, with convenience, nostalgia and marketing machines on their side, how can small business compete? And how can local bookshops, the backbone of any community, thrive?
Here is what you get from supporting a local independent bookshop:
1) You contribute to the local economy.
Locals in the Wynnum/Manly community will recall the effects of Campbell Newman’s tenure as premier, which included cuts to community health services in Wynnum, the sacking of 14, 000 public servants, as well as the axing of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. This spelled the beginning of a decline for local businesses with numerous stores – some whom had been there for decades – closing shop over the coming years. Consequently, stickers began to appear on empty shop windows asking what locals would like to see there (‘Campbell Newman’s grave’ read one of them). Wynnum Central became a ghost town, despite its potential for growth.
What makes a local community thrive? The small businesses, the people behind them, and the connections we make. When you invest in your local bookshop, you are investing in members of your community. You pay their wages, ensuring they’re able to employ other locals, whether students or mums with young kids, and in turn, their wages reinvest in other local businesses, schools, clubs, and charities. It also ensures bookshops can support institutions such as school P&Cs with fundraising events. We bolster each other in this way. You see the effect of your support right before your eyes – and that’s without beginning to touch on the worker exploitation that occurs by supporting corporations like Amazon over small businesses.
2) You get the benefit of a physical space and atmosphere.
On Love Your Bookshop Day 2019, two young kids wandered inside and submitted a series of questions, which, to my amusement, began with: ‘What is this place? Is this a library?’ They had never been inside a real bookshop before. And while odd, these were reasonable questions considering their young age and the lack of bookshops available to them. Independent bookshops have been in slow decline for the past few decades and their existence is often taken for granted.
Those who haven’t stepped in a bookshop in a while will recall the feeling of wonder in doing so. A sense of déjà vu often overcomes customers, where they turn to me and exclaim: ‘I can’t remember the last time I was in a real bookshop.’ There’s a type of remembering in entering a bookshop; something sensory and almost magical: the quiet, the smell of books, and the satisfying order of the shelves where you can reach out and run your hands along the spines.
In our bookshop, space is celebrated. You can follow the yellow brick road, dance on the Puffin rug, sit in the green eggs & ham chair, and play with our shop toys. Space is movement & stillness; it’s colour and play and possibility. But big chain stores consider space economically, which is why there are no chairs to sit and browse the first chapter of a book to see if it takes your fancy; no rug to perch-cross legged with your kids and point out the pictures. They encourage speed and impulse purchases, whereas to enter a bookshop is to find a moment of timelessness, a place to take a break from feeling the need to be as productive as possible.
How often have you spent time in a store only to feel as if you’ve overstayed your welcome? These constraints don’t exist in bookshops, where time folds away and you wander in content.
3) You receive personal recommendations and reviews from a bookseller.
When customers ask for recommendations, we ask three questions:
- What did you read last that you enjoyed?
- What genres and authors do you prefer?
- What do you feel like reading right now?
Using the answers (which can sometimes be as vague as a shrug and an I don’t know), we make a personalised short-list that caters to individuals. Unlike websites, we don’t use algorithms to show related searches, or push the book that everyone is talking about – the one someone higher up the corporate chain tasks employees to sell in droves. When you’re looking for something that is right for you, it needs to be catered for you specifically.
Booksellers live and breathe books for a living (some would consume them if they could – books are edible). Like most book-lovers, we spend our time reading, but we also have the advantage of years of experience in hand-selling books, access to pre-release titles and exclusive publishing information, while some of us – like myself – have studied books at an undergraduate or post-graduate level. Others come from education backgrounds, are studying to be teachers, or aspiring writers. Some are mums who know all too well the journey of encouraging your kids to read and engage with books.
Booksellers are also conscious of reading levels and content in books. Some people may want a great thriller, but not a domestic tragedy, or a similar theme that triggers. A bestseller may be lauded and talked-about, but if it lingers in the worst way then it’s not the right choice.
But when it comes to recommendations, we receive the most for children’s books. There are so many things to consider: the child’s reading level, their emotional maturity, their interest or reluctance in reading, any learning factors. We find early readers prefer larger text with a higher picture-to-text ratio. Beginner readers use pictures and text repetition to encourage learning. Some kids may be more visual-based learners and prefer a comic or graphic-novel format, whereas others who have difficulty engaging with books might prefer a verse novel with rhythmic language and more white space on the page.
4) You join a community of book-loving people.
Most bookshops no longer sell just books. They host book clubs for adults and kids, games nights, after-school and school holiday activities, author & illustrator events, art & craft activities. They are a cultural hub and meeting place where you may just find your people. You may not necessarily be the same age or share the same interests, but books are a communal space for discussion; books themselves have a way of transcending boundaries and representing different identities. We read to live and understand lives that aren’t our own.
For kids, reading and meeting about books teaches children the art of empathy and resilience, and offers them a safe space to articulate their thoughts and ideas. Book chats are essential in bolstering a love of books for kids outside of school. There is a great need for informal groups like kids’ book clubs that aren’t graded or dependent on a syllabus. Books also spark dialogue between parents and children, a way for them to share experiences through the veil of fiction.
But these experiences aren’t just for customers, which is why booksellers are always open to recommendations . There is a reciprocal joy in discovering what others have loved to read, and if there’s a chance to recreate that pleasure for ourselves, we usually jump on it by adding it to our to-read mountains.
There’s also a serendipitous joy in finding what you need. Whether by recommendation or chance, as if it jumped out at you while browsing the shelves, you wouldn’t have these moments if you bought online. It might not be a book, but a conversation or a person, like finding someone near you who loves the same book (which has occurred before, like a book-ish meet-cute). This ties into the community you find in bookstores, whether informally or not. Events like these may be rare or commonplace, but it’s all about recognising the good moments when they come.
5) You are supporting authors, illustrators, publishers, literary agents, etc.
When you consider the price of books, think of it as pieces of a pie doled out to different people: the author, illustrator, book designer, publisher, distributor, literary agency and bookseller. Buying a book at the price it’s intended (also known as the RRP: recommended retail price) ensures everyone receives a bigger piece of the pie. Buying the book at an extremely discounted rate, leaves everyone with much less – some even receiving minuscule amounts.
Selling books is an uneven playing field, when retail chains demand higher discounts from publishers, and independent bookstores are limited in the discounts they receive and are able to offer customers. I once found a book where the RRP was $39.99, which we sold at a small price reduction at $34.99; the same book was sold for an unfathomable $8 at Kmart. In this case, the purchase amount for that particular title for us was at least three times their selling price. Not only is it an uneven playing field, it’s also a field that’s constantly shaken so that one team (independent bookstores) are at a distinct disadvantage. If we go back to the pie analogy, it means we don’t get as much pie (and we LOVE pie.)
Despite the advantage of pricing, retail chains are limited in their range of books, meaning they benefit by stocking mostly best-sellers – books already in the public eye. This is why you’ll rarely find books by up-and-coming authors or published by small press in these chains.
6) You can interact with authors & illustrators and support them face-to-face.
Everyone needs to start somewhere and most authors & illustrators begin their book journeys with bookshops championing their titles long before they hit a Big W shelf. It’s a wonderful feeling flicking through a new book knowing it’s special and that there’s someone out there who will benefit from the message it gives.
Bookshops are also able to bridge writers and readers together through events in-store, from book launches to author talks to writing classes. It’s a chance to see into the process of writing and publishing a book, and the stories we choose to tell in them.
Locals love to jump behind others in their community, which is why so many books with a ‘local author/ illustrator’ label on our shelves will often get a second glance. For most creatives, this is the beginning of a long journey, and if you buy their book at a bookshop, you’re helping them on their way.
Do the locals in Strangers Things S3 succeed in their protest? No, but – spoiler alert – at the end of the season the shopping mall is blown up, and the town square and stores return to their former bustling glory. We could probably avoid resorting to such drastic measures if everyone shopped local, but sometimes that’s easier said than done. But if you’ve read this far and want to run out and support your lovely bookshop community, we have another blog post coming up with suggestions on how best to do that.
While we can’t claim that all we’ve written is the exact experience of every independent bookstore, we know that these issues are true to ours and we have tried to reflect that as accurately as we can.
Big love from The Mad Hatters Team x