The lead essay of Kill Your Darlings Issue Five, by Bookseller+Publisher editor-in-chief Matthia Dempsey, considers how online book buying is affecting brick-and-mortar bookshops. Here, Amy Roil casts her mind to the beloved institution of the second-hand bookshop.
People watching me scurry past my local second-hand bookshop, hands covering my eyes like blinkers in an attempt to fool myself that I’m not actually bypassing that most glorious of destinations, must think I’ve completely lost it. My mind is screaming for me to enter – what lovely bargains am I missing? What alluring literary treasures will I never possess? It’s a pathetic daily routine I’ve been forced to impose on myself to ensure I actually read the hundreds of titles that line my bookshelf – accumulated over the years as the result of said bargain hunting. Hey, at least I can admit I’ve got a problem, right?
What is it about the pre-loved bookstore that has such a pull on readers? Browsing the shelves full of musty old tomes in search of that elusive (and cheap) gem is far more satisfying than the relatively undemanding buy of a brand new book. The amount of work it takes to discover just the right one makes the resulting find that much sweeter. Unfortunately, it’s also a seriously endangered pastime. Since the purchase of my Kindle (sure, it lacks the soul of a bookstore, but it beats even second-hand prices) I’ve been downloading the free classics Amazon offers; those same titles were the staple fodder I once searched for in second-hand bookshops. Yes, I feel guilty, but come on – they’re free.
Victorian second-hand bookshop owners tell me the number of used bookstore closures in the state has been incremental over the past few years. Just last month Basilisk Bookshop in Fitzroy shut its doors and owner of Mornington Peninsula’s Books by the Bay, Leonid Kouvelis, can relay a long list of bookstores that have closed in his area lately. It’s a trend that’s echoed not only nationwide, but around the world. Melbourne second-hand bookshop owners know the end is nigh. But they say ebooks won’t be the reason for their eventual demise. The rising cost of overheads is the real culprit, and many can’t see any way of stopping the decline.
Robert Hansen from BSP Gallery Bookshop estimates the cost to rent a commercial business in Melbourne is around $1500 a week, but most second-hand bookshops would be lucky to turn over that much in the same period: ‘The problem is the rent is too high. Second-hand booksellers just can’t sell anything for five dollars. You couldn’t find the books fast enough to sell enough to make a profit for that price.’ The prices second-hand bookshops charge are unsustainably low, yet customers won’t pay more for pre-loved books. Sadly, it seems second-hand bookshops are no longer viable. In ten to twenty years, Robert believes, it’ll be about markets and online catalogues, but the daily book fix bibliophiles crave won’t be fulfilled by any physical bookstore. He says ebooks aren’t the main problem, although people are more likely to download them than buy cheap used books.
So what can we as readers do to stop this collapse? If we want second-hand bookshops (or any physical bookshop, for that matter) to continue, do we have to shun the ereader and keep up our old habits? How much of the change that’s happening in the wider book industry is up to us? At a Wheeler Centre event last month, best selling author Jeffrey Archer told Jennifer Byrne that currently 7 per cent of his audience are reading his novels in an electronic format. But Amazon founder Jeff Bezos estimates that in ten years half of all Archer’s books will be read electronically. As Archer revealed, Bezos makes no secret that Amazon is aggressively chasing authors with the promise of 25–30 per cent of their own sales if they publish exclusively in the Kindle format. With this model, it seems readers don’t actually have much say – if we want to keep consuming books, will we be forced to bow to the big companies who are determined to make ebooks the main platform?
It’s all very well to use the internet and ereaders to purchase books, but if readers want bookshops to continue, we need to keep supporting them too. I use the internet a lot for research, and yes, I use my Kindle to buy many titles recommended by online reviews. But there’s nothing quite like entering a bookshop with the purpose of finding the latest great read, only to be distracted by that book you’ve been meaning to curl up with for ages, or to be enticed by the cover of an entirely new and delicious-looking novel. Those are the encounters that make us grow as readers – and isn’t that the magic of bookshops? It’s an experience you just can’t replicate online.
The bookshop is not only a source of joy and discovery; it’s also a community hub, a place of robust debate, and a destination where you can get lost, only to find yourself hours later with a much heavier bag and a much lighter pocket. There will be some very interesting discussion about this issue in months to come but for now, inhale that timeworn scent, savour the in-store peace and appreciate an unexpected bargain while you can, because it’s possible your neighbourhood second-hand bookshop won’t be around for much longer.
Amy Roil is a book fiend who loves to write. She’s at her happiest browsing a bookstore, finding a bargain at a second-hand book market or curled up on the couch reading her novel of the moment.