Words and Images By: Trilokesh Chanmugam
Video killed the radio star, and internet killed the video store, but where do bookshops fit into the picture?
At risk of making a sweeping cultural criticism, it seems like reading novels is a pastime on the decline. And even among those who read voraciously, habits of bookshop patronage have tended to drift further and further away from the local street side store.
Brick-and-mortar book retailers struggle to compete with the gargantuan reach and minuscule operating costs of online bookshops. When this is coupled with the rise of ebooks and a more general shift away from regular reading habits, the traditional bookshop finds itself in deep water.
So explains the gradual demise of numerous bookstores throughout Australia and worldwide. This trend hit the big bookstore chains such as Angus & Robertson and Borders, which closed their last stores towards the end of 2011. West Australian Dymocks have flourished in the temporary bookstore vacuum, but the Fremantle outlet was closed, among others, due to high rent. Despite the relative success of Dymocks, it seems that books are not a big business anymore.
Within places like Fremantle, many bookshops find a delicate refuge. They’re kept alive by a feeling of collective nostalgia; a quiet revolt against digitization. And, upon stepping into one of these shops, I was easily overcome by that feeling myself. With soft lighting upon the colourful shelves and background music welcoming you to examine the titles at leisure, New Edition bookshop on Fremantle’s High Street is every sanctuary that a bibliophile could hope for.
I found myself talking to Alan Sheardown, the store’s proprietor, about his experience working with readers. Sitting with me against the window in the corner of the store, I was surprised to find that Alan shared none of my gloomy predictions about society being affected with a literary malaise.
“I certainly know lots of people who would much rather not sit in front of a screen. Not just people my age, but lots of people,” Alan explained.
It was easy to see why Alan was optimistic; the store was bustling, as far as bookshops go. People wandered in and out off the street at regular intervals, others nestled themselves down in one of the comfy seats conveniently placed around the shop.
I asked about how the rise of ebooks had affected his business, and whether he was concerned about having to compete with the low prices of online bookshops. Alan dismissed them as trivial problems.
“They’ve taken a segment of the market which used to be… to provide books that people don’t really care about, you know something just to kill time,” I was told. “That’s not my market, it’s never been my market.”
At New Edition bookshop, Alan caters to a market which is willing to spend that extra bit of money for a book that they will really care about; that they will want to display on their bookshelves at home. “It’s not just the words, it’s an object,” Alan says, describing how books can hold sentimental value. “It’s like a touchstone sort of. It’s not just the story, it’s something else.”
He reminded me that although Fremantle had many second hand bookshops, New Edition bookshop was the only store in the area that sold new books (after Dymocks closed up). Located in a part of town that hummed with student activity and tourism, it wasn’t all that surprising that New Edition was doing well after all.
Independently owned bookstores hold a further allure. In holding a more unique selection of titles, and bringing a personal touch to the community, these smaller stores are even more likely to prevail that bookstore chains, despite a challenging business environment. This was something that Alan and I agreed upon, even though he admitted that he might be biased.
“I have customers that come in once a week, customers that come in every day, you know, they don’t buy something everyday, it’s just part of their routine… If you’re interested in books, you’re interested in the culture of books.”
Alan stocks his shelves a little differently to other bookshops, which is sure to account for some of the shop’s popularity. Although he does stock titles which are promoted and advertised by the publishers, because they are likely to sell, he also spends a great deal of time cultivating well stocked niche sections based on his own interests, or those of regular customers. The Philosophy section is particularly impressive, as is the architecture, art, and graphic novel sections, among others.
“I mean I go through catalogues, look online for overseas distributors…I have customers who are interested in interesting things,” Alan says. “So when I get a customer who says have you got this or that, and I go away and think yeah, that’s interesting, I’ll get it in.”
People still appreciate a good book. Many of us might turn to the TV for our evenings entertainment, or amazon for that cheap paperback we’re dying to read, but a well stocked bookshop is unlikely to ever go out of fashion. Alan says he only really spends money on three things: “Music, coffee, and books.” If you’re of a similar mindset, you’ll probably enjoy taking a wander into New Edition bookshop. Just don’t bring your wallet unless you have cash to spare.
New Edition is open 7 days a week 9am-9pm
Located at 41 High Street, Fremantle