I had an epiphany yesterday: bookstores deserve to die.
I have wanted to be an author my entire life. I work in a bookstore. In the brewing war between traditional brick stores and ebooks/online retailers, I would have previously been galloping into battle alongside fellow bookstore lovers. I love browsing, I love discovering books I’ve never seen before, I love the different moods and characters of independent stores. I love the musty smell and quiet atmosphere of a second-hand store – I recall one store in Marylebone that was so cram-packed full of books that you literally couldn’t get down the aisles. I love the jumbled decorations and hipster music of stores like Readings or Planet Books. I love being in a foreign country and tracking down an English-language bookstore, a homely refuge of familiar Western culture – the best English-language bookstore in Asia, by the way, is What The Book in Seoul.
All that was my point of view as a reader, a consumer and a customer. I’d be lying if I said I never used online retail – it’s vastly cheaper than inflated Australian retail prices, and I’m more or less guaranteed of finding the book I need. But I felt guilty about it, especially using The Book Depository, which I’m pretty sure is deliberately selling books at a loss in order to gain a market share. I still shop at independent stores, and when I use Abe Books I always try to shop from stores in Australia or New Zealand. I’m no hippie, but I don’t feel comfortable having a book flown all the way from England or the US just to save myself a few extra bucks.
But my point of view as a bookseller? I’ve worked at my current store for about six months. Recently our stock manager went on holiday for a few weeks, and I accepted the offer of covering for her, since it meant regular hours and less customer service. Yesterday I tackled the thousands upon thousands of overstock books in our warehouse and spare room.
When a book in a bookstore is not sold, it is not marked down – at least, not at my store. It is “returned,” and packaging and sending returns is a huge part of a stock manager’s job. Nobody had done returns at my store for months, which was why we could barely move in our back room. Yesterday I went through the shelves and pulled all the books that had been there for more than five months; some had been there longer than a year. Today I packaged some to be mailed back tomorrow. I filled 33 large cardboard boxes merely with United stock (Allen & Unwin, Simon & Schuster and Penguin). The place is still drowning in a swamp of books from Harper Collins, Hatchette, Random House and dozens of smaller publishers.
I would estimate that we sell less than 30% of the books that enter our store. The rest, ultimately, become returns. As I understand it, the distributors send them to other stores after they’re returned; maybe they return them too, and the cycle goes on until the books are all sold. Or maybe they get pulped. The number of books that get damaged during shipping, or when I’m scraping price stickers off with a razor blade, means a large number of them probably get pulped anyway.
But their ultimate fate is irrelevant. What I’m getting at is that the system in place is monumentally inefficient. We ship massive numbers of new releases and promotional stock into the store, sell a handful of them, eventually relegate them to the normal shelves, sell a few more, then – once they’ve been out for a month or two – leave a few copies on the shelf and shove the rest onto the teetering piles in the back room. Allegedly they’re kept there to restock the shelves when those few copies out there are sold, but in reality those copies don’t sell, and the extra two dozen copies out the back sit there until they’re returned.
If you’re even remotely environmentally conscious, consider the impact of all those trucks and planes going back and forth, ferrying unwanted piles of books between suppliers and stores, all so we can have a fully-stocked promotional display for Paulo Coelho’s new book, or because the last Harry Potter movie was released and there might be a few families left out there who don’t own the books, or because somebody at head office had a gut feeling that “Last Man In Tower” would sell 140 copies (I’m not exaggerating, we literally got 140 copies).
It might seem like a leap to go from complaining about this, to saying that bookstores deserve to die. We live in an interlinked, global society, and probably everything you or I own was manufactured overseas and shipped to us in the first world. There are already tens of thousands of cargo ships criss-crossing the oceans, gradually killing them; already thousands of planes in the sky, already millions of trucks on the road. What does it matter if the bookstore supply model is part of that ravenous machine?
It matters, I think, because we have a more efficient alternative. We have e-readers – which I’m not a fan of, but which are unquestionably more efficient in terms of both transport and raw materials, and which will probably endear themselves to the next generation. Closer to my point, we have online retailing, which still provides readers with the comfort, style and possession of a physical book. Ordering books from Amazon or The Book Depository or Abe Books still involves mailing them out to you, still involves that global supply chain – but there is no wasted travel. You select the book online, pay for it, and it’s sent directly to you. None of this zig-zagging back and forth like Odysseus, shuttled from store to warehouse to supplier to store, in the vain hope of finding a buyer.
All this makes me sound like some kind of efficiency-devoted robot who cares nothing for books and literature, but that’s not the case. We will always have second-hand books, and as James Bradley argues, we’re likely to see physical books become more of a status or prestige item in the coming years. I always notice when browsing at Readings that they tend to stock nicer editions of books; hardbacks, and books with interesting covers, like this edition of “The Slap.” I think independent bookstores will persist for some time yet, out of customer loyalty if nothing else; I know of nobody who was sad to see Borders and Angus & Robertson close down (apart from their shareholders), but there were plenty of long faces when Reader’s Feast closed its doors. For dedicated book lovers, I suspect there will always be a few places in any major city where they may indulge themselves.
But for casual readers, who comprise the vast majority of the buyers – people who buy paperbacks from supermarkets and newsagents and chain bookstores like Dymocks – a more efficient model has emerged. The online retailer is more environmentally friendly, more likely to have the books in stock that the reader wants, and has low overhead costs which are passed on to the consumer. Bookstores (like all stores, I suppose) were the only option for many centuries. That’s no longer the case. Like recording companies and real estate agents and video stores, they are middle-men, struggling to stay afloat after being rendered useless by a ubiquitous global communications network.
There are three responses I can see people making to my argument. The first is, as always,“But jobs will be lost!!!” This is never an excuse for anything. Eventually technology renders jobs obsolete. Deal with it, and get a new job. As I said, I hope there will still be a few independent and second-hand stores around, providing jobs for those who are truly passionate about being booksellers. For the vast majority of booksellers who work for companies that treat books like potatoes (which includes mine), there will always be plenty of other general retail jobs.
The second response is that I may be wrong about the scope and extent of the inefficient system, and it may simply be that my company is exceptionally badly-run. This would come as no surprise; they run a wide variety of retail stores, and head office often fails to grasp a lot of the fundamentals of being a bookstore (because, as Henry Rosenbloom points out, books are a hands-on, detail-intensive business which can only be run successfully by people who love books and know their stuff). Our staff turnover is amazing, and one of our senior employees told me the other day that she has never in her life worked for a company more poorly run than this one. Maybe other stores sell a lot more than 30% of their stock. If anyone well-informed would like to correct me, please leave a comment.
The third response is that it’s hypocritical of me to say that bookstores deserve to die out while still hoping that plenty of cool independent stores and second-hand stores survive. Well, you try spending all day boxing up Eckhart Tolle books and Snooki’s autobiography and see how you feel at the end.