Independent bookshops are magical havens offering something unique to the discerning bibliophile. But with e-books on the rise and giants like Amazon putting many book chains out of business how are they surfing this tide of change? What do they see coming their way?
SYP Scotland’s latest event saw Peggy Hughes of the Dundee Literary Festival chair a discussion with four indie bookshop owners to see how they fare in an industry going up against digital.
First up is Gillian Robertson from Looking Glass Books, a bookshop and cafe set up in 2012; having joined after the digital shift, she’s never had to adapt from how things were, just simply look forward since opening. Next, Elaine Henry from Word Power Books, with 20 years’ (Saturday just gone, belated happy birthday!) business behind them. Then, Ian MacBeth of Golden Hare Books, a store that recently moved from Grassmarket; he’s spent years working in a chain store, so is still coming learning the ropes of the indie sector. Finally, Marie Moser, who purchased Edinburgh Book Shop a few years ago.
“It’s a bit like Blind Date,” jokes Penny, who poses a question and lets all four answer it.
Gillian says Looking Glass Books was a blank canvas when she purchased it, but she wanted a place people can spend a lot of time in and have space to host events too. All indies have things in common, she notes, but they’re all different in approach and that’s why they need to be preserved. If you don’t respond to what customers want, then you don’t succeed; there’s a constant response to the community.
Elaine has a mixture of being a local bookshop, and a destination one. Textbooks are their bread and butter, which allows them to also stock what they’re more known for – radical books, feminist zines – in fact, they squeeze as many books in as possible!
“I bought it because I live locally and I’m a book nut,” laughs Marie. The key is to listen to what people want, and provide for the community you’re based in. Ian says that community feel is the main reason they moved; they really flourish and benefit from it. In their previous Grassmarket location, it was mainly tourist footfall.
EXISTING DIGITAL RELATIONSHIP
Marie says that when it comes to communicating, it’s what right for customers. She feels that with Twitter, the industry often just talks to itself, whereas her customers respond to that physical network. Ian says Golden Hare has a site and tweets, but it reminds of him of something Charlie Brooker said: equating it to Guitar Hero where everything is coming at you and you have to click just because. It can be useful, but it’s difficult to make your voice heard, so that in-person approach remains important.
“I’m running a bookshop, I don’t have time for Twitter,” laughs Elaine. Someone points out that Russell Brand actually recently retweeted their account. “Did he?” she asks, admitting that there are some advantages to it, as just proven. Gillian, on the other hand, is very active with the Looking Glass Books twitter account, noting “it may be a huge time drain, but for us it’s crucial”; she believes her shop wouldn’t have survived as it has without the online presence.
CHALLENGES & HOW TO FUTUREPROOF
“Not sure any bookshop can be futureproof,” notes Marie. “No business can be mediocre, if you’re not interested or engaged, you’re not going to make a living.” She says politicians need to stand up to companies like Amazon (and other non-book types) who skew taxes to maximise their profits on top of an already profit-squeezing set-up, although “I can’t influence what Amazon do, but I can be the best at what I’m doing” in order to keep going.
Ian explains that none of them are in a position to match the discounts, so they have to offer something else: the in-store experience. “You can’t compete on their terms,” he says, “so take the fight to them where they can’t compete.”
In Word Power Books, they have signs that say ‘think before you click’ and ‘discounts don’t come for free’. Somebody somewhere is always paying for discounts. Elaine accepts that publishers are being held over a barrel by Amazon but feels that if they, as an industry, stood against them, who knows what could be done. She also feels that other challenges come from claims to support the indies, but publishers often still using chain stores for their events, and this is somewhere where they could work closer together.
Back to the discounts Marie asks, “Why don’t we value or product? Whenever you let chains discount bestsellers, it instantly devalues the product. Be more proud and confident in it.”
Gillian points to the USA, where in 2009 there was a resurgence of the indie book store – what’s driving that? The shop local movement – you don’t need millions of customers to be sustainable, global growth isn’t on the agenda; it’s a case of meeting a local need when the opportunity arises. “I do think we need to look at where there’s positivity.”
Gillian says their relationship is good, but the events problem can be an issue. She doesn’t want people to get too caught up in tokenism because there are things the publishing industry could do – discounts, hold events at indie stores – the rest of the year, not just to tie in with temporary campaigns like Books Are My Bag. Looking Glass Books’ relationships with local writers is particularly good.
Elaine really values that relationship with publisher reps (to which the panel unanimously agree without hesitation). It’s a shame, she notes, to see that role shrinking because reps are invaluable, get the job done and know the businesses they’re dealing with. London publishers can be faceless companies, where it’s nice to deal with a person, not a catalogue.
Reps are a great pleasure of the job, adds Ian, and them being slowly faded out can really rip the heart out of the job. It quashes interaction and feels like you were just shifting units, not actually connected with the book trade.
AMAZON BROWSER STORE
It’s basically showrooming. Gillian notes, “It tells its own tale on how people like to find books” that Amazon would try to expand into a physical, high street market. Amazon is a chain, so she’s not losing sleep over it. Elaine adds that it’s not going to change the way she does anything. “They’re kind of irrelevant – stuff them!”
Ian would, at least, be interested. “If it’s like the website it’ll be a horrible and ugly place to be,” he laughs, adding “Bring it on!”
“Put them next to Waterstones and that’s interesting,” adds Marie. Their business model is basically to take out competitors, so then what happens?
If Money Was No Object…
Elaine simply wants a bigger space and room for events – she’d want to have a broader cultural centre and more creative projects, but it’s great as it is. Ian thinks Golden Hare would do what they’re doing anyway, just without the worry of making ends meet. Marie just wants more space, but not too much: “Smallish is beautiful for indie.”
A long blog for a worthy discussion! It seems like the indies may have their problems from Amazon and the likes, but they’re going nowhere anytime soon. Be sure to check out and support your local indie bookstores too! Any thoughts on it?