What kind of feedback have you heard from booksellers in the provincial towns? You mentioned its positive?
It is positive, after 2015 with the 7.1 percent increase in book sales volume and the strength of selling continuing into the new year, there are certainly smiles on booksellers’ faces I’ve seen. It’s working quite well in the provincial areas as well, not just in the cities. I’ve been talking to people like Wardini Books in Havelock North, Louise Wardini was saying how good trading is at the moment, Page & Blackmores Booksellers in Nelson, and the University bookshop Dunedin, it’s all fairly good news.
Why do you think it’s so positive?
It’s a lot to do with the economy not just here in New Zealand, but also in the United States where I’ve just came back from, Australia and the UK. It’s to do with the economy and in large part, it’s also to do with bookshops, especially smaller bookshops in provincial or country towns who are really learning how to combat the likes of online retailers offshore such as Amazon. We don’t have any statistics really around online buying of e-books and so on, but it would appear on a worldwide scale that those sales have tapered off. In fact, there are indications that they’re declining as people – readers – are discovering the virtues of bricks and mortar stores and the service they get. The local bookshop has an understanding of their particular interests and the personal curation of books. It’s that whole relationship a bookshop has as cultural hub as a part of a small community - that seems to be quite a significant aspect of why these country bookshops are doing well.
What is the strength of being an independent store in these smaller provinces? Do the indies find it easier to build a relationship with these tight knit communities?
That’s the key to it, yes, the important aspect that the local bookshop understands their local customers and can look after their local customers better because they communicate with them and understand their needs. I remember a while ago a bookseller saying to me, in some ways a book seller can be like a doctor or a lawyer, as there’s a personal relationship where buyers come in and ask for books to do with personal advice, finance or with health. Or they can be interested in what the latest romance novel is about, or what a local author has recently produced. That bookseller’s local knowledge of the community around them and fulfilling their needs is one of the keys to this issue. There’s a whole lot of discussion, even in academic circles, around the principle of the third place. There are three places in your life – your home, your place of work and then also, we’re social animals and we need a place where can commune and socialise. A number of things in a small community that can provide that service: the church, the pub, or a bookshop. You can go browse through books, talk to the bookseller, talk to other people in your community that happen to be there. This whole local aspect has become increasingly important. A number of our bookshops are now emphasising to their customers in different ways what that customer is doing for their local community by buying from that local store, and so on. There’s not just the bookseller helping out the local, it’s the locals helping out the bookseller as well as part of a community.
Where do you predict the future is heading for these independent stores?
While sales are rising, which is great, what we may now begin to see is a major turnaround is happening, particularly in the US and Australia. People are opening new bookshops and buying existing bookshops. I’ve only seen one or two examples, but there are examples out there and I think that 2016 we will see an expansion of that activity. There’s a brand-new shop just about to open in another part of Wellington that doesn’t have a bookshop, expansion of a university bookshop in the lower part of Wellington. Up in Auckland, a couple of sisters have bought the iconic Dorothy Butler Children’s Bookshop in Ponsonby. You’re hearing of other people becoming more interested in perhaps opening or expanding their bookshops. One of the other factors in the US, which is probably a factor that doesn’t exist here, is the closure of the big chains such as Borders. In America not only have Borders collapsed and gone away, but the other big chain Barnes and Noble are closing a lot of stores, and this obviously opens up the opportunity for indie bookshops to open.
- This interview was part of a feature on provincial retailing published in issue 743 of NZRetail Magazine.