A few weeks ago, the news came out that the last remaining independent bookstore in Saskatchewan is closing its doors on Saturday. (I know McNally Robinson in Saskatoon still considers itself an independent, but I’m talking about the small-format, cozy bookstore. More on that later.) The Book and Brier Patch has been in operation in Regina for over thirty years, and it’s been one of my favourite bookstores in all of Canada (with the exception of one in Halifax that I don’t know if it’s there anymore).
It’s sad when independent bookstores close their doors. I know the right-wing-nuts out there are going to say, “well, if they can’t stand the heat, they should get out of the kitchen”, and “that’s the price of doing business”, and a bunch of malarky about staying competitive in a downward-turning economy and all that bee ess. The owner of the Book and Briar Patch isn’t going out of business because he has to; in fact, he’s doing well. And he wanted to get out while he was still at the top of his game. I think that’s pretty awesome.
Part of the problem for Independents are big-box stores, of course, like Chapters/Indigo, but more problematic are places like Costco and WalMart and Safeway who offer deep deep discounts on books. It’s problematic not just for the bookstore competitors, who can’t afford to offer the same discounts – a store like the Book and Briar Patch will order a bunch of books at roughly a 40% discount off the retail price (the ‘wholesale price’, in other words). But huge stores like the ones I just mentioned will demand a 50%+ discount. If you’re a huge publisher like Random House or Penguin Canada, you can mass produce paperbacks at such high quantities that your per-unit cost is pretty low, comparatively, and so it won’t hurt you too much to meet the stores’ demands.
But if you’re a regional press or anyone smaller than the IT equivalent of IBM or Apple, it’s tough to get your books into the big box stores. If you can, it can be great – offering a higher discount in exchange for selling ALL OF YOUR STOCK through Costco is pretty cool. As long as you don’t permit the retailer to return your stock. Which is an issue with the big-box stores.
Hang it all, I didn’t want this to turn in to a rant about how difficult it is to be a book publisher (it’s very difficult). I wanted to talk about something else entirely. So. The first thing facing independent bookstores is the somewhat unfair competition against big-box retailers (no, you can’t blame the big-box companies for being cutthroat and competitive. It’s what they do – follow the bottom line to the exclusion of all else; it doesn’t matter if the product/service they offer is good or worth consuming, it matters that people part with their cash as soon as they enter your building).
The second problem, which is a problem facing many genre retailers (gaming stores, comic stores, bookstores, specialty bath products stores, etc.) is online retail. Now here’s something interesting. You can buy books online. Usually they’re advertised used or new, for a fraction of the retail price in the store. But there’s a catch. You pay for shipping. You usually pay quite a bit for shipping. In fact, if you work it out, you’re probably just as far ahead to actually buy the books in the bookstore (which you can’t do anymore because there aren’t any bookstores left. Moose Jaw, for example, a fair sized small city, has *no* bookstore. Neither does Yorkton. Prince Albert and Swift Current *might* have a Coles each). Some online retailers offer free shipping on orders over X amount. I don’t know how much longer they’re going to be able to do that kind of thing, because shipping books is really expensive.
There’s also the eBook thing. People have been predicting the death of the print book for at least a decade, if not more. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think what WILL happen is that print books will become more expensive, and it will be more difficult to get published in print if you’re a writer. I think publishers are going to move more toward a print-on-demand system, as technologies improve to the point where the production quality of a POD book will be close to that of a print-run book. Not there yet, but I don’t think it will take very long. I don’t think the print book, in other words, is going anywhere. I hate reading books on screens. I hate it. With a flaming passion. I can’t lend eBooks out to my friends or to my kids; if I drop the eBook reader in the tub, I’m screwed….it’s just not cool.
Some people might disagree with me. Some people might tell me that I’m a throwback to the ‘old ways’ and that ‘kids nowadays’ only want to pay attention to der blinkenlites and der buttonpushen. I call schmatzie on that. All the kids my kids nowadays hang out with read real books. Some have eReaders, but most lose them or break them or whatever and end up reading book-books in the end anyway. So I don’t think books are going away.
Just like records haven’t gone away. CDs haven’t gone away. What HAS gone away are retailers *for* those products. If I want a CD, I either have to go to a specialty retailer or I have to look for direct marketing from the artist. The music stores carry top 40 music and popular labels…some artists on popular labels…but their shelves are full of DVDs and Blu-Ray discs and not music. Just like when you go to Chapters/Indigo, their shelves are full of magazines and pilates equipment and Oprah’s book club, but if you want to find Jessica Grant’s breakthrough masterpiece (Come, Thou Tortoise) or classic P.K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) or the latest non-fiction or academic title on Aboriginal land claims on the east coast, you’re probably going to be up the creek without a paddle.
So since it’s all going to be about special order anyway, what you’re going to need to do is learn more about the publishing industry. About the producers. You’re going to need to know how to find the books you want, on your own. Some of them…most of them…will be on services like Amazon (which you might think are efficient at finding books), but why not order them directly from the publisher? Then you know that the money you’re spending is going directly to the producer.
In fact, the book industry itself is really changing, with DRM, copyright issues, digital formats, and the dissolution of market retail spaces. Direct to reader marketing and sales are going to become really important. Which is kind of sad.
Because the bookstore is just a cool place to hang out. And I haven’t even talked about all the jobs that are lost…local jobs held by people who love doing what they do.
Anyway. Just a few thoughts.
I’m’a miss you, Book and Briar Patch. Thanks for being the awesome bookstore you were!