We can't save big book barns, but we can save independent cultural retail. It's independent book stores and music retailers that offer something the big chains rarely mustered: character, passion and charm.
The closure of Angus and Robertson and Borders has rather suddenly and destructively destroyed a large part of the Australian publishing industry’s value chain.
Capital city dwellers living close to the inner city retain plenty of choice. But out in the suburbs and regions, the picture is bleak. There are now important Australian cities — such as Rockhampton or Woollongong — in which there are no general bookshops selling new books. Rocky and The Gong have important regional universities. But no bookshops. How did it come to this?
The story of the destruction of book retailing is a story that has been recounted many times, not least here in Crikey. Kill Your Darlings carried an excellent feature by Matthia Dempsey on the issue recently. But the take-home message is simple: industrial change. To understand why publishers and authors are so worried, it helps to understand the structure of the publishing industry (known in the trade as, well, “trade publishing”) as it had developed in the 1990s and 2000s.
Luckily, cultural sociologist John B. Thompson has done that for us, in his magisterial history of trade publishing, Merchants of Culture. Thompson’s book describes in fine-grained detail the way that large chains came to dominate book retailing, and the way this changed the type of books publishers published, and the nature of their dealings with authors (see: agents). With deep pockets and a lot of industry muscle, big chains have been able to monster publishers for better deals and bigger discounts, at the expense of independent bookshops everywhere.
Now the chains are collapsing and publishers and authors find themselves selling goods to a shop window with a “closed” sticker hastily pasted up. The alternative, digital retailing, is an even bigger chain — indeed basically a monopoly: Amazon, which recently bought the Book Depository. Can book retailing be saved?
The answer is almost certainly: it depends. Big chains with big retail footprints had big overheads to match. Their book-buying experience was often sterile, consumerist and cheap. I love books and I can’t resist wonderful bookshops, but the book lover in me rebels at supporting retail outlets where books are less prominent than merchandise, where in-shop displays scream bargains in high-vis nikko, and where books are scattered on trestle tables with bibliophobic disorder.
Should we really mourn the passing of glum, fluorescent book barns paying exorbitant rents in soulless shopping centres?
On the other hand, many independent bookshops offer something the big chains rarely mustered: character, passion and charm. When I recently visited Adelaide, I found myself magnetically drawn inside Imprints Bookshop on Hindley Street, with its bespoke bookcases and muted, effortlessly tasteful, gentlemen’s club ambience. On noticing a collection of essays by Charles Taylor on discreet display, I reached greedily for the volume, before checking myself and asking the kindly man at the counter. He was nearly as excited about my excitement at Charles Taylor as I.
Book buying should be like this: an induction into a vast and exciting secret society, populated by beautiful physical objects containing wisdom, and knowledge, and love.
The story of the fight to save iconic Brisbane record shop Rocking Horse offers a glimmer of hope. This independent record shop had grown to become one of the most-loved of Brisbane’s music retailers, surviving the demise of chains such as HMV, and then the downfall of the CD itself. It was a centre of the Brisbane independent music scene — among other things, it was a significant ticket seller for independent gigs and small music festivals, as well as a trove of local music knowledge and a repository of wisdom on rare independent music from around the globe. If any shop could truly be said to have its own fan base of motivated customers, it was Rocking Horse.
So when the store announced it was shutting down last month, there were howls of dismay from across Brisbane and indeed the rest of the country. But this story does have a happy ending. A campaign was launched to save the shop, and customers flocked to show their support. Self-described “gig pig” Lyndal Cairns wrote on the “Save Rocking Horse Records” Facebook page:
“Congratulations to all those who put their money where their mouth is and supported a great local business. But a CD splurge and a Facebook event will not keep Rocking Horse alive in the long term.”
Cairns is right, of course. A once-off CD or book splurge can’t save independent music and book retailers. But passionate customers just might.