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Feb 17, 2011

Rundle: the beginning of the end of bookshops

As REDgroup Retail, the owner of Angus & Robertson and Borders stores announced this week that it had gone into administration, Guy Rundle writes about the wider implications of the death of the bookshop.

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As REDgroup Retail, the owner of Angus & Robertson and Borders stores announced this week that it had gone into administration, Guy Rundle writes about the wider implications of the death of the bookshop.

The current troubles of the US Borders books group in the US — the chain is expected to file for chapter 11 bankruptcy very soon, and continue trading after closing around 200 of its nearly 700 stores – is being taken as a harbinger of the problems being faced by bookstores of the Amazon age.

The US Borders group is currently the second-largest chain (after Barnes and Noble, who may buy up much of its discarded inventory), and its aggressive loss-leader expansion in its early years wiped out many mid-range general purpose independent bookstores. Now many mid-size towns have only a Borders and will be without a bookshop when it goes.

In the UK, Borders collapsed almost overnight in 2008, and shuttered its doors, leaving Waterstones (owned by HMV), as the only surviving chain (both had scarfed up smaller chains such as Books Etc and Ottakers in the past decade).

Now HMV is in trouble, its CD/DVD stores division facing huge losses, with 60 stores — including 12 Waterstones — closing. Since HMV is the last CD/DVD chain, it marks the end, in many towns, of a main street place, to buy mainstream product.

So it should be obvious what is happening: these events mark not merely the beginning of the end of bookshops or record stores, but the end of the shop as we have known it – as the default recourse for purchase, a position it has occupied since the city-states era of Mesopotamia.

It’s part of a more radical shift in the whole nature of space and social life that is occurring due to the spread of online existence, and one whose radical impact we have barely begun to reflect on.

Consider the example at hand, the ‘shop’. The word originally denoted a store — it is related to the word keep (kaufhaus — shop (Gr), kop (sherp) — buy (Sw))– with the shop as the actual selling area at the front. Gradually, the ‘store’ was out off-site, and the shop alone survived. Though there have been plenty of innovations – mail-order shopping via catalogue for example — the volume of these has always made them an augmentation rather than a replacement. But for most people, most of the time, the shop has been the place you go to get stuff.

That is clearly changing rapidly and radically, and so the whole centrality of the shop is changing. It is no longer a necessary place, and so the high street no longer acts as the spatial core of a community. At some point a whole series of mainstream shops will succumb to insufficient, intermittent demand. Everyone will want to know they are there, but no-one will use them enough.

Book and music stores are going; supermarkets, offering online automated delivery and self-service checkouts, are ceasing to be shops in any meaningful sense, and becoming depots. What else could go? Furniture stores, electronics, stationery… all these and more could potentially and easily succumb to cheaper online costs and the ease of online shopping.

Of course there are formidable barriers to that — the online shopping environment is still, in many ways, less user-friendly than real 3D browsing. Indeed, the early online shopping experience often had various forms of daggy and inadequate virtual reality. But eventually and soon, they will crack it, and the existing way of working through lists and keywords to buy books (or kindle texts), will look incredibly creaky. For all sorts of products, a 3-D browsing environment will eventually be established.

The second problem is that of delivery, with the archaic assumptions that there’ll be someone home to receive goods. This could presumably be solved by some sort of larger mail-box/bin, with a PIN-number locking system. You send a pin number when your order something for delivery, the company uses it to put stuff in your bin, you change the PIN, or the PIN changes automatically, to use for the next delivery.

Much of this would be welcomed. Who wants to go to the supermarket? Far better to have a system that regularly restocks basic food every week unless told not to. But the changes in urban and spatial life will be highly disjunctive. Those shops that do survive will be increasingly voluntaristic — boutiques, one-offs, pop-ups, combination cafe-shops etc — and the whole character of cities will change.

But they will face one major problem: existing versions of such rely on the foot traffic from ‘necessary’ shopping, the type that will gradually disappear.

The wider question, in terms of future life, is how we will sustain any form of public spatial life at all – as the last shared, necessary space dissolves. Doubtless we will, but there may be a long period before we realise that the very form of our lives is changing. That period has already begun.

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30 thoughts on “Rundle: the beginning of the end of bookshops

  1. Redranter

    Another great article. The GST exemption for online shopping debate missed the wider point that you’ve just made excellently. I have friends who no longer buy things from shops because it’s so much cheaper online/overseas, but what they don’t realise is not only are you buying a book from a bookshop, you are also paying for Australian jobs and investing in your community, and you are interacting with and enriching your community.

  2. simon tatz

    I very much doubt the record and book store are at an end as Rundle claims. For example, when home theatre was unleashed, ‘experts’ claimed this would be the death of the cinema; yet we have seen an increase in the number if cinema’s built here and in the US (Canberra is about to get another new cinema complex) and the box office remains healthy.

    Second, sales of vinyl records have been increasing over the past decade. It is estimated that in Europe, vinyl accounts for about 12-15% of all sales and Australia still has some amazing (if not niche) record stores. Contrary to reports, the LP is alive and doing very well, thanks. Video is also making a comeback, given that there are millions of them out there and they are very cheap.

    What you might see is a rise in second hand and specialist book stores, as we have seen with vinyl record stores. Books have been with us for too long for people to just give up the joy of owning, reading and collecting them . .. and like the claims of the death of the cinema, we might just see in a few years the ‘re-birth’ of the book store and a greater interest!

  3. wilful

    I think it’s a while off for most forms of goods, I can’t see home delivery for all sorts of perishable good becoming economic any time soon. But for books, i was looking to buy a CSIRO publishing book the other day. $80 at borders online, $47 via the Book Depository. WTF?

  4. puddleduck

    Ah, Rundle at his best! Taking the pulse, taking a punt on a prediction of drastic change, making us think… Love it!
    I wonder if the shift at work here is going to divide people into us and them – there will be those loyal to the concept of a store, and those who are more price-driven. Those “western suburbs of Sydney” that seem to set policy in this country, will, I suspect, be them. Hell, they already are, and I don’t like them.

    Companies will like online sales because it will mean lower cost for bigger return. Anyone been into a store lately? Finding an assistant is one thing, finding one who knows something about the product is another. Will the online “shop” give me the information I need to know about the origin of the piping in my fridge, and whether I can jump on the shatterproof crisper drawer? I doubt it. But stores aren’t doing that now either.

    Guy, please come home to Oz so we can get together and discuss “the nature of space and social life” over something very alcholic.

  5. kayeg

    Australians have been buying books from overseas long before the internet and amazon etc. Perhaps it has always been cheaper, or more convenient, to buy in this way. And now there is free delivery of books (& other goods) ordered from your computer, at prices that are much cheaper than those bought locally. However, the local (owner operated) bookshop has lost those sales, and is going downhill rapidly.

    In my local area all the bookshops are teetering on the brink – halving their stock, floor-space and staff while some face financial ruin, and close. The future of book-selling in Australia is at stake, and I would not like to live in a society without well-stocked, knowledgeable local bookshops (the chains are another issue).

  6. zut alors

    Much food for thought here, Guy. The demise of physical shopping would revolutionise our society – for the worse.

    Mind you, I wouldn’t fret if any Westfield Shoppingtowns were deserted and had tumbleweeds blowing through them.

    Shopping online for everything? – not very practical. Ask women if they’d buy their bras without a fitting. And I’m damn sure I wouldn’t trust an online supermarket entity to select an avocado at the required ripeness.

  7. Ben Gook

    Tatz — I think going to the cinema and going to Coles or Borders are quantitatively different things, one a banal fact of life, the other an aesthetic experience. The less time you spend doing things like going to Coles, the more time you have for doing things like going to the cinema. Wasn’t there a faddish interest in “The Experience Economy” a few years back?

    Devices like the Apple TV and Telstra T-Box even make the DVD rental store redundant. Why bother hiring a scratched DVD when you can pipe an unblemished file straight to your telly?

    And every piece of vinyl I’ve bought in the past year or so has come from online specialist stores in the UK & US with no physical shopfront, just big f-ck off warehouses full of semi-obscure music. Vinyl in Australia is hellishly expensive because its key market seems to be cashed-up audiophiles who spend hundreds of dollars on isolation turntable mats and customised tone arms.

  8. Angel_Trumpet

    Thanks for the thoughtful article. I also posted on Borders US this morning: http://angeltrumpetsanddeviltrombones.blogspot.com/2011/02/independent-bookshops-or-online-giants.html

    It seems we both made the call about five hours too early, as REDGroup Retail, the owner of Borders and Angus & Robertson, has today also been placed into administrators’ hands.

    Get out there folks and support your local independent bookseller and record store, before they disappear completely from our society and shopping becomes an experience of isolation before a screen.

  9. AR

    The move on-line for everything from avocados (thanx Zut) to zygotes has many advantages but also many vulnerabilities.
    The more technically complex a society becomes the more brittle it is whether hydrological agriculture (from Mesopotamia to Angkor Wat) or diggy-tekky stuff, it doesn’t take much disruption for it to collapse, quickly & utterly, if something happens to those who know how it runs
    Let’s imagine that things do move substantially on-line, what will all those un/semi skilled shelf stackers, floor sweepers, do? Become ATM techs, oh no, coz we won’t have much need for the folding stuff either.
    This isn’t a Luddite call for subsidies to buggy whip makers but I do wonder how so many people are going to fill so many empty hours, with or without the dole.
    The foreman was being told by his boss that the new steam shovel would do the work of twenty men. He looked unimpressed and asked “And how many widgets will it buy when it goes home?”.

  10. simon tatz

    Gook, I never said Coles and Borders equate to a similar experience, perhaps you should read my comments. Having spent 14 years working in record stores, I can tell you it is not just audophiles who buy LPs – check out the dozens of $5 quality LPs at a shop like the Velvet Fog if you need an example of how cheap vinyl is still popular, even in a niche market. Maybe you should support the lcoal record store and buy your LPs here, not from OS and online?

    My point is that who wants a society where we pipe movies directly to our devices and watch them at home? The reason cineamas are increasing is people enjoy social activities, hence seeing a Coen Bros movie on a big screen in a packed cinema is far more social and engaging activity than watching at home through a crappy 5.1 cheapo system.

    Books too have the same appeal. A bookstore offers far more than just books; it is a social experience and hence will never die. Have a look at the data for online food shopping – very few people do this, they actually like to go out and see, feel, smell what they buy.

    Your suggestion seems along the lines of ‘why go to an art gallery when you can view the paintings online’!

  11. madelinelizabeth

    What about Australian publishing? When you buy books online from OS you’re not only shortchanging Australian retailers, but their suppliers, Australian publishers and in turn, their suppliers, Australian writers and illustrators. The Australian publishing industry is reeling too, and the effects on local creators will, in the long term, be devastating.

    Specialty retailers of books and music are important and for those in the inner-city urban areas business might still be booming – but will they be enough to sustain the creative industries they’re retailing?

    The Book Depository is just another Readings – the word from Australian publishers is it must be running at a loss. How long before it too tumbles?

  12. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    In my local CBD in Townsville (Flinders Street Mall) a complete block has been empty and more or less derelict for two years awaiting a multi-hundred million redevelopment – that was seriously stalled by the GFC. Now the local council has re-opened the 30 year pedestrian mall to car traffic creating what you might expect to be new opportunities for retail development.
    But the kind of development you’d expect is the small specialty chain stores like bookshops and boutiques – the kind that Guy Rundle is suggesting are becoming obsolete in the new world order.

  13. Bill Parker

    There is another way of looking at this. Combine books with coffee and other services like hairdressing, remedial massage, even counseling and internet access. Maybe not all as one business, but groups of businesses. Think smaller. Why must we always pander to the shareholders of large corporations? And what is the essential ingredient? People meeting people. And I am no luddite.

  14. James

    Isn’t on-line shopping just extending the damage already caused by Westfield type developments to small suburban shopping strips – when I was a child our small local shopping strip had a Real Estate Agent, 2 hairdressers, a Newsagent, a fashion shop, a pharmacy, 2 Milk Bars (remember those?), a Green Grocer, and a Butcher, and in half an hour I could have walked in either direction along the same road to another similar sized shopping strip. All the staff new their customers, and vice versa, and I could buy a single Jelly Bean, and the Hardware store would sell a single screw (try that at Bunnings)! Now I’m (much) older we have a local Woolworths and a Newsagent, and a Pharmacy, and that’s it. To go with that we (Australia) have some of the world’s most expensive food prices, and farmers leaving the land because they can’t afford to live. As Guy suggests, this may not only the beginning of the end of bookshops, but ultimately shops as we know them – not all progress is for the better. How long before a visit to a speciality shop requires a Passport?

  15. Daniel

    Can we stop using the term ‘Luddite’ as a term of abuse or disdain, please?

  16. zut alors

    Further to James’s line of thought about small shops, even the large supermarket chains have begun shedding staff by installing self-serve checkouts. I refuse to use these even if only purchasing a couple of items, I’m willing to stand in line and wait for a checkout with cashier. A supervising staff member is on the floor to herd customers through the self-serve area and familiarise them with its use but it’s up to the public to resist and save these poor sods’ jobs.

  17. Ian

    Perhaps it’s the megastore concept that’s dying in their self-created race to the bottom?

  18. Peteyboy

    @madelineelizabeth:
    “What about Australian publishing? When you buy books online from OS you’re not only shortchanging Australian retailers, but their suppliers, Australian publishers and in turn, their suppliers, Australian writers and illustrators.”

    They’ve got themselves to blame and their ill-considered parallel importation lobbying last year. Heard of unintended consequences? I’d argue books in Australia are a special case of the decline of the shops – the price differential between bricks-and-mortar and online was so large it was obscene. Hence the demise of Borders and A&R.

  19. madelinelizabeth

    ops! please replace “Readings” in my comment above with “Borders” !

  20. Benjamin Solah

    I disagree with the emphasis you’ve put on the shop and consuming as the centre of a community. Shopping feels like the last communal thing, especially compared to producing (i.e. work). You’re an isolated individual when you go shopping, making decisions by yourself and there is no communal or group decision making or working together during this process.

  21. Astro

    Rents were too high, impossible to compete with online sales and new technology

  22. Kerry Lovering

    Shops will always survive while there are parents trying to entertain their children.
    Women with kids dominate the shops every day–and so they should.
    Bookshops will survive for browsers and kids–so will libraries.

  23. gguru

    All businesses must take note of this otherwise they will be out of work. Too much time in business now is spent doing outdated marketing, IT, distribution activities etc. The most important way to keep in business is to stay relentlessly present to now – read all you can about this current shift, don’t make judgements, just watch. That is all you can do and business judgments then will occur naturally and more likely beneficial.

  24. corbie68

    I think that we do seriously have to have a broad based public discussion about the effects of technology on the future of work and the economy overall, as someone who is trained in IT and shops online for most of my books and cds, dvds, pricewise it’s the way to go, but then what do we do about the loss of jobs locally? And like AR mentioned it’s not just retail that is replacing once human jobs with computers or computer operated machinery – it is libraries (where I work and I don’t get paid that much which is why I shop online 😛 thus reinforcing the vicious cycle), public service, manufacturing, mining (they don’t employ that many people), etc.

    I started reading this book, I haven’t finished it yet but you can read the whole book online for free:

    http://www.thelightsinthetunnel.com/

    Very interesting, personally I think a good place to start would be to start reducing individual workloads and full time hours, but of course this contradicts current business practice of squeezing every last bit of value out of employment costs. I think we will probably have to move away from the current Production/Consumption model of economics to one which is more time centred and allows people to pursue their passions, instead of the current waste of human ingenuity that winds up with degree graduates flipping burgers at McDonalds (seriously you need a degree minimum to apply for jobs at fast food joints in China).

    Its no wonder we are experiencing globally such a deep recession/ depression because of the massive imbalances that are now occurring, and it will be fascinating to see how it all plays out, but I think that smaller players will rise out of the ashes if they can give people a quality experience. Like the seller I buy second hand books from at the book market who is willing to match Amazon prices in Fed Square 😉

  25. Charles Maine

    If the bricks’n’mortar bookstores are failing, it’s because they’re not offering enough to justify their existence. Online retailers and discount chains beat them on price. For most people, most of the time, the internet has become a passable substitute for a bookseller’s knowledge. All of them combined give a wider range and better stock availability than any bookstore could manage.

    I understand that many people enjoy shopping for books as a kind of social and/or leisure activity. I don’t. For me, the book *is* the activity. Buying it is just a transaction, like buying a ticket to see a movie.

    @simon tatz: “My point is that who wants a society where we pipe movies directly to our devices and watch them at home?”

    I do. A cinema might offer a superior audio, visual and social experience, but not every movie needs it. For the rest, a big-screen and a hi-fi will do nicely – it’s more or less the same medium, after all.

    On the other hand, a computer monitor does a pretty poor job of translating oil, watercolour, charcoal, sculpture etc.

    @james: “the Hardware store would sell a single screw (try that at Bunnings)!”

    I once bought two washers at Bunnings, each a different size. Cashier didn’t even bat an eyelid.

  26. Stiofan

    What a lot of crap from Rundle! This article is filled with so many howlers that’s it not funny.

    A private equity play goes pear-shaped, and suddenly it’s the end of society as we know it?

    This is just a pretentious rant from an out-0f-touch middle-aged male.

  27. David Reid

    The bookshop is not dead! Indeed the demise of Borders may give independent bookshops run by real people who know and care about books a chance to prosper again.

  28. Lambikins

    Public commercial spaces have been changing for a long time – see grocers or the market replaced with supermarkets – the personal exchanges with the butcher, grocer, cheese seller whatever who were people’s neighbours and friends, replaced with a long row of highly efficient and impersonal anonymous cashiers, trained to work quickly instead of stopping and chatting.

    Small, more personalised book shops and cinemas have also been replaced by the massive chains. We should lament more their death than the impersonal behemoths that were Borders etc

  29. Anna

    Wouldn’t want to presage the death of Dymocks, but for all the talk of unqualified, unhelpful customer service assistants I’d like to give a shout out to the exceptionally knowledgeable young fella in Dymocks Sydney city store. Not much he doesn’t know about kids’ lit. I love going there, although the RRP for a kid’s book feels like a cheese grater down my hip. As a result, for my own reading pleasure, I buy / bookmooch / borrow about 70% of my books these days.

  30. Mike Jones

    Interesting idea – to extend the death of book and CD stores to shops in general. But perhaps an overstatement.

    I regularly buy from Book Depot in the UK or Betterworld books – often at prices less than half (sometimes a third) of the local prices – including delivery – often within ten days. Mine go to a post office box. Dymocks online ? Better left unsaid.

    But as painful as supermarket shopping is, browsing groceries online is the pits. I’d rather go and have a look around, buy a coffee and some things that I hadn’t thought of buying before. And encountering another human being would be nice – as opposed to living entirely in cyberia.

    Lastly, when everything comes from invisible factories and storehouses in unknown locations somewhere else, getting a dud replaced or repaired would be a total nightmare. Witness Telstra now. Holy f*ck!

    Space and time always for good service – at a reasonable if not rock bottom price.

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