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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.

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:

    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’!

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