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.