On Whitcoulls and Borders

News broke today that book chains Whitcoulls and Borders have been placed under voluntary liquidation in Australia and New Zealand.

Did the first domino fall? Is the digital revolution upon us? Will this lead to the demise of bookstores all around the country?

Possibly. Far more likely, though, is the large book chains down-under can no longer take the heat from online stores offering a much broader range of books at more competitive prices. On top of this, both Borders and Whitcoulls have been under siege on the high street too, competing with The Warehouse and new entrants JB Hi-Fi in DVDs, Blu-ray and Music.

Over the course of the next decade it's inevitable that digital books will replace traditional books for many people, but we're a long way off that, at least in New Zealand. iBooks is hugely lacking in content, and I only know two friends who own an Amazon Kindle. On the other hand, everyone I know reads books, gives books at Christmas, has books on the coffee table and cookbooks in their kitchen. This won't change any time soon. 

It's not all bad news for your neighbourhood bookstore either. Australian author John Birmingham puts forward a compelling argument for the return of small, independently owned bookstores. The type of store you might visit while travelling overseas, or spend an hour or two on a lazy Sunday afternoon. 

At the end of that process [the transition to digital] I would expect to see most of the chains gone, but many of our much loved independent bookstores will still be with us, doing what they do very well now. Providing a bespoke service, with a lot of hand selling of small-print-run, high-value books as part of a complete retail experience.

What does that mean? It doesn’t mean sticking Gloria Jeans in the middle of your bookshop hoping that people will buy shitty books along with the shitty coffee. But it might mean something like my local bookstore, which is also a restaurant and cafe, and a really lovely place just to hang out for a couple of hours. It’s deeply embedded in the local community and appreciated - not just for the books it sells, but the amenity brings to the neighbourhood.

At the end of that process I would expect to see most of the chains gone, but many of our much loved independent bookstores will still be with us, doing what they do very well now. Providing a bespoke service, with a lot of hand selling of small-print-run, high-value books as part of a complete retail experience.
What does that mean? It doesn’t mean sticking Gloria Jeans in the middle of your bookshop hoping that people will buy shitty books along with the shitty coffee. But it might mean something like my local bookstore, which is also a restaurant and cafe, and a really lovely place just to hang out for a couple of hours. It’s deeply embedded in the local community and appreciated - not just for the books it sells, but the amenity brings to the neighbourhood.

Digital books are not to blame for the demise of Whitcoulls and Borders. The internet is, and the rising expectations of book lovers. We might be a dying breed, but we're not gone yet.

posted by Dylan on 17 February 2011, 11:21 pm in

comments