Out of print

For a few days just after Christmas, my family and I took a short vacation in California (not having had any summer holiday last year). We stayed in Santa Barbara, a rather beautiful town on the Pacific about 100 miles north of Los Angeles. As we often do while on holiday, on the first day we headed straight for the local bookshops. In fact, Santa Barbara has a Borders bookstore and a Barnes & Noble. No, that’s not correct, they had these. On our first day we were able to get into Borders, but discovered they were closing down. We had a look around anyway and thought that, the next day, we would head across the road to Barnes & Noble. But the next day we found that, suddenly and as far as we could see without warning, Barnes & Noble had shut completely. We decided against planning any other bookshop visits in case that it also prompted them to close.

Well, as people in these islands know, this is not a unique American phenomenon. Over the past few days the largest chain of bookstores here, Waterstones, has announced the closure of several shops, including its two Dublin ones. This comes not long after Borders in the UK and Ireland also closed down. Analysts looking closely at the bookseller business now assume that, within five years, no major chain of bookshops will be trading.

What are we to make of this? Well, one thing we don’t need to conclude is that nobody is reading books. That is manifestly not the case. But how people buy them has changed fundamentally. Those who – how shall I put this – are not opting for very demanding books are more often than not buying them in Tesco supermarkets or in newsagent chains. Others are buying them online, in some cases in ebook versions. In fact, ever since Amazon’s business model came right the writing was on the wall for the big chains.

So will we now have to shop for books online only? No, I don’t think so. It has been suggested that one type of shop now making a comeback is the independent (and often smaller) bookstore. And that may well be true. I don’t know if I’m at all typical, but I now buy most of my books online, but I do walk into some small bookshops I know about once a month and browse, and invariably I come out with something bought. Moreover, when I was shopping in Waterstones I went straight for the section I has in mind. Now, in a smaller space, I look around at everything, and my purchasing has become much more eclectic.

It’s not long ago that concerned bibliophiles regularly complained about the major bookstore chains, arguing that their approach was anti-intellectual and not based on a real understanding of books. Well, they’ve gone. Independent shops are back. And access to a huge range of books online is easy and fast. This morning, while reading about Waterstones in the newspaper, I thought I would miss them. Maybe I won’t.

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13 Comments on “Out of print”

  1. Vincent Says:

    The problems with bookselling here in Ireland was the posture that they assumed viz the pricing. The altitude of rarefied air emanating from the owners and a feeling of pressure to buy. Waterstones got rid of all those.
    I ‘discovered’ Waterstones Dillons and especially Foyles when I lived in London. And I was truly delighted that they came over here. Can you imagine sitting down on the floor and reading your way through a book in the store we’ll end up with now. And for what it’s worth I’m far from being creaky enough not to do the same today when a book catches my eye.
    The business model for the mega-bookstore was somewhat problematic and it requires a confluence of elements to arrange themselves before they can operate. Generally both books and music are in the same boat and HMV is caught holding both.

  2. Jilly Says:

    Did I completely imagine this, or aren’t Waterstones and Hodges Figgis owned by the same parent company?

  3. ivonne Says:

    Try Books and Beans on Belmont Street or Online http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/ (they specialise on hard to find books/DODO press does re-prints of out of print books.

  4. Ciara Ní Ghabhann Says:

    @Jilly They are both owned by the same parent company, but Hodges Figgis is unaffected by the closures.

    I actually prefer larger stores. Yes, they’re less personal and all that, but they always have what I want in stock, or can order it for me. Smaller bookshops usually just direct me to another small bookshop down the road, because unless they have the book I want in their warehouse, they can’t order it for me. They’re too small for it to be worth their while ordering books from England, unlike Waterstones.

  5. Anna Notaro Says:

    I have to say I never had any intellectual bias against the bookstore chains, in fact I have always enjoyed browsing and drinking a coffee. Maybe I liked them because I like the combination books/coffee, the fact that pronouncing the Italian words ‘cappuccino’, or ‘latte’ has a homely feeling (in spite of the flavour being a distant relative of the original one), or maybe I liked them because the coffee/book association reminded me of how literary/academic culture and the coffee house are bound together since the Enlightenment (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penny_universities, how they have contributed to creating a democrating ‘public sphere’.
    Today’s posts have exactly that in common, the idea of the public sphere as something that is constantly evolving, universities need to bring the debate about their raison d’etre out there in the new (electronic) agoras, similarly the culture of the book (and of book-selling) is changing, new types of public sphere which bring communities of readers and authors interactively together are springing up
    new business models are emerging (http://kriswrites.com/2011/01/05/the-business-rusch-rapid-change-changing-times-part-twelve/)
    I might still miss the coffee though…

  6. Em Says:

    I won’t miss Waterstones, but I would miss Vibes & Scribes (Cork) or Books Upstairs (Dublin). I actually find books to be cheaper in those stores and I love browsing books there. I also buy a lot on the internet, but rarely from Amazon directly.
    I think you are right in pointing to the fact that more people are now visiting indies.

  7. Dan Says:

    Yes, yes…we have all these wonderful ways of buying books on Amazon, Abebooks, digital communities…enough already!

    But now I will not be able to go into Dublin’s erstwhile best bookshop for childrens’ books, retreat into that cosy little corner with my little boys, pull books down from shelves and make our choices…before heading off for a pancake. UNESCO Literary capital, huh?

  8. cormac Says:

    I like smaller bookstores too, I’m more likely to come out with a novel and a science book under my arm. but I’ll miss browsing in Waterstones, it was an integral part of lovely Dawson St

  9. Dan Says:

    While gritting my teeth here about global business models and bookshops, I’m also struck by the fact that as Dublin’s best bookshop street is now further diminished, we have one of Ireland’s most beautiful university arts libraries (Trinity, really amazing). Hmmnnn… Imagine if little boys were allowed in! AND it had a coffee shop….

  10. Dan Says:

    Nobody’s taking my bait there…some years ago, I travelled across the USA for several months. One day, a friend and I had need to check out some travel details in Virginia and we walked into the local college library and asked where in the town we might locate a computer to access websites. The librarian said, “here!”. In we were guided and she logged us onto a computer prominently labelled as being for “community use”.

    Slightly astonished, I asked if we should pay a fee and were assured that no, this was the town’s university – and that members of the public could stroll in, use the library, access the Internet on specific computers and generally treat the place as a resource.

    This is NOT aimed at TCD, but if we are moving towards a bookshop-less city/world and public monies fund universities and their libraries, is there not an argument that members of the public should be able to access these marvellous cathedrals to knowledge and learning, places where you can still handle a book?

    • anna notaro Says:

      that would be wonderful Dan, and a splendid example of universities really fulfilling their ‘public’ vocation, (books and computers for community use) forget about the ‘cathedrals of knowledge’ metaphor though, bit of a stuffy one for the 21st century, I’d say…

  11. Jim Says:

    I wish more bookshops would incorporate a cafe. I’m a massive fan of bookshop cafes and this is one area in which Amazon et al can’t compete. Good ones are scarce in Ireland, the Book Centre in Waterford being an (excellent) exception.

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