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Bookstores without Borders: Buying books online and offline

Grace Yew

Thu May 31 2012


GRACE Yew delves into the decline of bookstores, the inevitable e-book domination and the places where you can still buy a good old paperback in Melbourne.  

“There are no more bookstores in Melbourne,” lamented one of my friends.

We’d been discussing the Borders meltdown and were all wondering where we were going to get our books from now. Some of my friends were in favour of e-readers and online shopping. Most were not. Few had faith in the independent stores.

Borders’ untimely demise is old news now, but since REDgroup Retail went under, things have become increasingly worse for the print industry. Last year, Minister for Small Business Nick Sherry even suggested that bricks-and-mortar bookstores would die off in a matter of years.

The Australian response to the minister’s pessimism was divided between righteous offense and unconvinced mockery. Science bookstore Embiggen thumbed its nose at the pessimists by launching a new ironic motto, ‘The Bookshop is Dead! Long Live the Bookshop!’

It’s easy to blame online competition for the print industry’s woes. That’s what REDgroup did. But while the internet does threaten the retail industry to a certain degree, the real reason for Borders failure was a terrible business model. They outsourced their digital dealings to Amazon, expanded too rapidly, launched their e-readers too late and over-invested in CDs and DVDs.

If that wasn’t disastrous enough, stores were knocked about by rising rents, the government’s regulation on imported books and money-minded distributors. The resulting price difference was staggering. Borders gained a reputation for being ridiculously more expensive than anywhere else, and people shunned the brand.

But in the aftermath of Borders-gate, all is not lost. Independent booksellers and second hand stores still survive and thrive in Melbourne.

In fact independent booksellers comprise of approximately one-fifth of the market now, receiving a boost in sales when Borders went under. I can’t speak for secondhand shops and the purported spice of their old goods, however. My dust allergy destroyed any chance of us striking up a relationship.

Readings bookstore in Carlton. Photo: Snipegirl via Flickr

A new business model

While REDgroup did a lot of things wrong, it was right in saying the internet plays a key role in the changing publishing industry. Nowadays, it’s cheaper to buy GST-free paperbacks from online global vendors such as Book Depository or Fish Pond.

The remaining traditional booksellers have had to adapt and create multi-channel initiatives in order to promote growth and combat online distributors. Stores now opt for hybrid models where customers can browse products and availability before purchasing online or in person.

Readings has an online shop and delivery service. Embiggen invests in an educational blog and regularly broadcasts in-store events featuring visiting scientists, professors and ambassadors.

Hill of Content sells Kobo readers and dedicates a few shelves to orders awaiting pickup. Its mother company, Collins Booksellers also recently expanded into e-books, in partnership with Kobo.

Old-school charm

Of course, some of us don’t want to buy our books online. The appeal of bookstores lies in their status as public spaces. As human beings, we want to congregate and browse. It’s why we go to art museums rather than simply viewing the works of the Old Masters online.

Customers are likely to return if the store is aesthetically pleasing. Book Depository’s selection is superior to indie franchise Readings’, but cyberspace is rarely as gorgeously presented as a physical store.

Embiggen, for one, has an open space in its store. A makeshift chandelier, comprising of glowing tungsten in three test tubes, dangles from the ceiling. Most of the shelf space is dedicated to the store’s ample collection of science, art and philosophy, and the owners seem to favour books about time travel and religious studies. The titles alone are delightful: Moonwalking with Einstein, The Steampunk Bible, Molecular Gastronomy, Oceanomania and Inventing Iron Man (yes, that Iron Man).

New releases are more likely to be found in the cosily cluttered Readings or the burgundy-carpeted Hill of Content. The latter boasts leather armchairs and two floors of genre bliss. Its classics selection is the most distinctive, ranging from Dickens to Dostoevsky, Shakespeare to Tolstoy and Gormenghast to Hardy and Brontë. The poetry section is also fairly extensive. I found (but couldn’t afford) anthologies by Nabokov and Frank O’Hara.

And let’s not forget that good employees are a vital part of any shop.

The ideal staff member is both a reader and curator, ready to spread the literary love. Their recommendations and conversation, in other words real human interaction, cannot be replicated in Amazon’s reviews or incessant cries of, “See what other people have bought!”

The times, they are a-changin’

I’m not nostalgic by nature and don’t object to the digitisation of the industry. I will always love paperbacks, but e-books are undeniably practical. You can’t keep lugging a bookshelf around when you’re an international student shuttling between apartments and countries.

We all miss chain bookstores. For all its failures, Borders had orderliness, abundance and variety on its side. Whenever I pass its real estate successor in Melbourne Central – an oversized Gap outlet – I die a little inside. How many clothing stores does a shopping centre need?

Nevertheless, we live in an age of accessibility. The material matters more than the medium. The Borders debacle has taught the industry valuable lessons and bookstores are increasingly aware of customer sentiment.

Playing the middleman and catering to constant orders is no fun, but bookstores have adapted to the ever-changing consumer climate. A supportive mutual relationship with the community is, after all, key to their survival.

The Last Ones Standing

There are still some great bookstores in Melbourne if you know where to look:


197–203 Little Lonsdale St (behind the State Library)
Art, design, DVD documentaries, fiction, history, economics, plays, poetry, philosophy and every science book in between.

Hill of Content:
86 Bourke Street
A subsidiary of Collins Bookstores, this shop has everything, but is especially good for the latest releases and the classics.

309 Lygon Street, Carlton
A wide range of books with a particular focus on Aussie writers and literature, history, art and design, travel and cookery.

118 Lonsdale Street
Your one stop shop for romance books.