When I arrived from the UK and settled in Melbourne, I quickly learned to respect coffee and not to make jokes about AFL. I also noticed that Melbourne has an impressive network of local independent bookshops. But how have indie bookshops managed to survive in Australia when they have virtually vanished in the UK and the US? And can they now survive Covid-19 – their biggest challenge yet?
In the UK, the rise of national bookstore chains and supermarkets, with their heavy discounts, saw 500 indie bookshops close their doors between 1991 and 1995. Amazon arrived in the late 1990s with online books and free postage, and then the e-book phenomenon followed in 2007. In 2012, the number of indie bookshops remaining in the UK was fewer than 1000 and market share had dropped to approximately 5%. We had let them slip away from our communities without a fight.
In Australia, market conditions have not been as brutally competitive as in the UK, but there have still been significant commercial pressures and some notable casualties, such as the closure of the Angus and Robertson national chain. Despite this, Australian independent booksellers have retained around 26% market share. Their ability to co-operate, innovate and adapt has contributed to this success.
One of the key success factors has been the level of collaboration between booksellers. Leading Edge Books (LEB), which was founded in 1998 and is an alliance of independent book sellers, enabled indie bookshops to compete more effectively with big chains and also facilitated the sharing of best practices between booksellers. This type of co-operation was not replicated to the same extent in the UK.
Independent booksellers have shared best practices to improve their shop design, inventory management, and to focus marketing campaigns on targeting peak sales periods like Christmas Day and Father’s Day. Successful booksellers carefully select book titles that appeal to their customer demographics and taste, many offering titles that national stores do not stock, like works by emerging authors from small presses.
Some booksellers, like Dillon Norton near Adelaide, were early adopters of online bookselling. Readings also took their key in-store selling skills onto their website. They developed an extensive website which features book reviews and focused blogs by staff with particular genre expertise.
Australian independent booksellers have also been innovative in developing a strong community presence. Many indie bookshops have become hubs for their community. The Little Bookroom in regional Victoria, has trialled many successful events including creative writing workshops for children. Other Indie bookshops have popular book clubs and cafes.
Suzy Wilson, of Riverbend books in Brisbane, founded the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. By 2011, this charity had supplied over 250,000 books to remote communities and published 66 books written by Indigenous authors (The Australian, 2011). Readings supported community literacy projects by donating $1.2 million of its profits from 2009 to 2015. This was also a contributing factor in helping Readings win the International Bookstore of the Year award in 2016.
Australian indie bookshops have been resilient and have earned their place in our communities. But now they have an even tougher challenge on their hands. How do you sell books when your shop doors are closed for lockdown?
Struggling to pay rent and to keep their staff, independent booksellers are trying to find ways through this. I interviewed Nicole Menard, who has owned Top Titles in Brighton for nineteen years. She said, ‘It’s very tough. We are selling some books, but this is nothing like business as usual.
‘Like many bookshops in Melbourne during Stage 4 restrictions, Top Titles has a poster in the window that says: We are open for contactless collection, Free local delivery, Phone us or order online. Inside the store, staff prepare books for delivery or to place on a table outside the backdoor for arranged collection.
Nicole is using every inch of her shop window, including the locked entryway which has a display unit in front of it. She said, ‘The shop window is helping. People see a book as they pass and call us.’ Asked about the future, Nicole said, ‘People want to browse but having a good website and selling online—that is more important than ever.’
Mark Rubbo, owner of Readings, is currently running his flagship Carlton bookshop as an online store, supplemented by phone service and ‘click and collect’ for local customers. In May, he said on A Current Affair, ‘I never thought that would happen.’ Author talks, promotional events and book clubs are also moving online.
Indie bookshops need our support as they strive to remain in our communities. Here’s what you can do to help:
1. Google your local bookshop
2. Choose a book (online or phone for recommendation)
3. Order online or by phone
4. Choose contactless collection or free local delivery
5. Enjoy your book
You can also support Love Your Bookshop Day on Saturday 3 October.
Gail Holmes is the Sales Manager at Grattan Street Press. She is currently in the final year of her masters degree in Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing.
*Photo by Gail Holmes, featuring Top Titles in Brighton