I’ve been doing the rounds of my local independent bookshops, and although the shops are well-stocked, and often beautiful, the economic picture is not pretty.
At each shop I have a good browse, buy a book, then have a chat with the person at the counter (usually the owner) about my forthcoming biography. I let them know that, as a local writer, I’m open to suggestions, and happy to do talks, signings, events, whatever. I give them a flyer and my contact details.
Usually the conversation ends there, with the booksellers expressing engagement and goodwill. Several will be selling the biography at the library talks that have been lined up for me over the next few months. At Red Door Books of Lancefield (pictured) I will be doing book signings, on the same day as the renowned Lancefield Farmers Market (Saturday 28 April, 2018). Worth a trip up the road, I reckon!
But in too many shops the conversation continues, with the owner explaining how difficult it is for them to keep the shop afloat. I’ve heard about people working seven days a week. About making no profits for three years. About not having the funds to employ staff. About selling up or closing up.
I live in the Macedon Ranges, a picturesque region with many small towns and quite a lot of tourism. The shops in central locations within the larger towns, with plenty of local and tourist foot traffic, seem to be doing OK. But the smaller shops in out of the way locations are struggling, and although I’m saddened, I’m really not surprised. Let’s have a look at the numbers.
Each week, a bookshop needs to cover the costs of rent, utilities and staff. Even where the owner works in the shop themselves, I think we can assume they’d like to take home some pay at the end of each week. As a rough estimate (and probably quite a low one) let’s say they need to bring in $2000 per week to cover costs. That might give the owner earnings of about $1000 per week.
Bookshops keep about half the retail price of each book. So that’s about $10-$15 per book (and less for some children’s books). So, in order to cover costs, a bookshop needs to sell about 150-200 books per week, or about 20-30 books per day. Even mid-week, in mid-winter, when the weather is foul. For a small shop in a small town, that seems a big ask.
I don’t think bookshops are in immanent danger of disappearing altogether but I do think the sector will continue to shrink for a while. For me, the comparison sector is saddlers. The advent of the motor-car surely brought about the closure of many small saddlery and produce stores. However to this day, a few large saddlery chains and independents continue to survive and thrive, serving the enthusiasts of the recreational horse-riding community. It seems to me that, over time, enthusiastic book buyers will become a similarly niche market, to be served by fewer, larger stores.
What do you think?
Well, as a regular tourist in the area you mention (because we go to the Woodend Winter Arts Festival every year and make a long weekend of it), I think you are probably right. In Woodend we buy books from both the second-hand bookshop and the new one (which has recently expanded) and they seem to be doing well, though of course that’s a weekend when the town is full of book-lovers. We usually visit other towns roundabout and stop somewhere for coffee en route and *if they are open*, we investigate their bookshops too. (#OffTopicButNotreally: We have been surprised to find that the nursery in Kyneton, where we’d like to buy seed potatoes from their excellent range, hasn’t been open on Queen’s Birthday. Well, ok, they’re entitled to a holiday too, but why not take a day off when the town isn’t full of tourists looking for something to spend money on?!!)
I think the only way a small town bookshop can survive is if they piggy-back off something else (e.g. being part bookshop/part coffee shop) or if they have some niche which they operate online e.g. specialising in some kind of rare book or stamp collecting or something like that. The other thing that would help involves perhaps a bit of self-interested philanthropy from the owner of the shop: a reduced rent that allows a shop to be profitable and encourages people to stop off and spend money in the town is better in the long run than rents that force shops to close, leading to a long line of empty shops and a dying town.
The other thing that may be relevant is the runaway success of Clunes BookTown which in contrast to its early days when it was wonderful, is now IMO too big and too crowded to be enjoyable. Booksellers from Melbourne come up for the day (often with a lot of junk they can’t sell in their own stores) and hive off some of the market for local booksellers.
Some super interesting insights here, thanks Lisa. I suspect the kinds of people who are drawn to owing a bookshop aren’t necessarily the kind of people with an entrepreneurial or business brain. That is, they’re in it for love, not money, but some are realising too late that the money is rather more important than they hoped. I know some small bookshop owners invest a lot of time in running events and festivals but I’m unaware if there’s a resultant (direct) financial benefit.
Well, I did own a small business for a while, so I can relate to having one but not having a business brain! How we kept things going for five years when neither of us had a clue still seems like a miracle to me and I am actually proud of having kept people in work (paid with proper award rates BTW) during a recession.
I suspect that none of those festivals or events are going to be hugely effective unless there is community support or a town strategy to support it. I’ve seen this here in Melbourne where when our local arts centre opened, it was surrounded #TrueStory by stupid cafes that closed on the weekend so you couldn’t get a coffee or a drink after you’d seen a show.
As far as I know (from gossiping with locals), Castlemaine has a municipal strategy and so does Woodend, and my guess is that while they won’t mind too much if other nearby towns piggyback off their success, they probably guard their markets carefully and wouldn’t be too supportive of rivals. Having said that, your whole area is becoming an arts hub, and the tourism opportunities have to be good for booksellers. Whether they are good enough, is another matter.
I’d love to own a bookshop in my retirement- OZ Books new & secondhand – but I’ve done the sums you do in your post and the only way it would succeed is as a hobby, which I can’t afford.
Oh, Bill, don’t even think about it. You might be surrounded by books, but you’d be working 7 days a week!
Agreed – sometimes dangerous to turn a hobby into a job!
I’m afraid I don’t have much to add. Lisa seems to have covered it all very well. The most successful ones I’ve seen are those that do other things as well – sometimes even a newsagent. (Some newsagents only carry bestsellers/genre books but some I’ve noticed try to be a more rounded bookshop). I was surprised when we were in Thredbo this January to find a very small but excellent selection of books in a little gift shop there that had changed hands. I commented to the person behind the counter and she said the owner puts a lot of thought into the book selection, and that it was the only bookshop around. What about that lovely one in Jindabyne I asked (the one we often visit on our way home). Gone, she said. That was sad because it was a lovely bright, friendly shop.
I think Lisa is spot on when she says these things are likely to succeed when there is an overall town plan for attracting people.
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