Notes From Your Local Bookstore's Funeral

on Friday, June 17, 2011
Aussie politicians say the darndest things. For thirty-five odd years I have merrily chuckled along, sometimes with them (thank you Paul Keating and Jeff Kennett), sometimes at them (take a bow Tony Abbott). So how's this for a gag? "In five years, other than a few specialist booksellers in capital cities, we will not see a bookstore, they will cease to exist." So declared Nick Sherry, Federal Minister for Small Business (which, last time I checked, included bookstores), in a speech he gave at some event of little importance (read: free lunch) a couple of days ago. Granted he was sucking up to his audience - online retailers - and he has probably never walked into a bookstore other than Borders or Club X (hey, he spends time in Canberra, it's de rigueur), but surely he must have been taking the piss!

Okay, so the book world is in a state of flux. And yes, lots of people - myself included - are buying books online. I might even agree that there is a grim future for the book-barn type of store, as evidenced by the recent collapse of a certain book-as-commodity giant. But the suggestion that the small and medium sized indie stores might go under, especially within five years, is just absurd. I have garbled on before about the future of "real" books (as opposed to e-books), and I imagine the same goes for the shops that sell them. The digital/online threat only applies to certain sectors of the industry, generally those that can just as easily be peddled in supermarkets as bookstores. But even that doesn't mean we can expect Tapas bars (or whatever the next fungal fad might be) in the places of our beloved book haunts. Many real bookstores already have the ability to sell e-books and, in the next five years, I expect more will sign on. Evolution is inevitable, but it sure ain't going to lead to extinction. Quite the opposite, in fact.

As for the great Amazon conundrum (especially when the Aussie dollar is totally killing it), Sherry's prediction assumes that buying books is an either/or proposition when it simply is not. I buy online and I buy in store. I imagine there are many more book lovers just like me. No online experience can possibly match the pure comfort and joy of browsing in a bookstore, or chatting with knowledgeable staff about what you or they have been reading. Serious readers develop meaningful, nerdtastic relationships with booksellers. Amazon often 'suggests' books I might like to read, but they don't know me and, no matter how complex their predictive algorithms, they don't really have a way of understanding what I might feel like buying on a particular day. A good book store is more than a commercial enterprise; it is a gathering place, a hub, a home away from home for the literary minded. That's the thing Nick Sherry fails to understand. In five years' time I expect to still be standing in any one of my favourite local indie stores. What I can't guarantee is that I'll remember the name Nick Sherry.


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