Saturday, 26 February 2011

It is my fault that all the local bookshops are folding

It is true. And I feel guilty about it. As an out-of-the-book-cupboard bibliophile it is only right that I should make this public confession.

I have been buying about three hundred books every year for at least the last two decades. Some years more, some less. In some years the money I spent was pretty close to my annual income, the money that I lived off coming from buying and selling more books. And living off apples that grew in the back yard of the house I lived in.

When I started collecting books, many of the books I bought were new. But it doesn't take long before you have all the ones that you want—at least, all the ones that you want that are available new at your local bookshops. So I came to rely on local second-hand bookshops, which have a much, much wider range than new bookshops. They also have older books obviously, and I liked old books, just for being old.

When I started travelling interstate, I started hunting out and visiting bookshops, which I would trawl on massive book-buying binges. Then I started buying from the catalogues from these bookshops, and others I heard of, but could never visit. Then catalogues from overseas. Then I joined societies like the Early English Text Society and the Malone Society, so I could get my hands on reprints of obscure titles I would never find or afford second-hand.

And then, may the techno-gods be praised, the internet was born! Tim Berners-Lee might have invented the World Wide Web in March 1989, but I first used a computer with internet access in the early 1990s—using Telnet and then Eudora for email. The first web browser didn't come into existence until 1993 either. Imagine, I had been using a Mac since 1987, but had to wait six or seven years before it was any more useful to me than a typewriter.

In 1996 AbeBooks.com started. Apparently, it went live and "immediately began to transform the world’s used book business by making hard-to-find books easy to locate and purchase." It wasn't the only search-engine for books. BookFinder.com was launched in 1997 and Alibris was founded in 1997. So, by the end of 1997, online bookselling was everywhere.

Looking back over my journal of purchases, in 1996 I bought 225 books, but only three from overseas. In the following years the number slowly but steadily increased: 3, 8, 21, 15, 28, 36 etc. And since I was working at a large antiquarian bookshop and most of my money was spend at the shop I worked, this last figure represents a very significant proportion of the money I was spending on books outside of the shop.

And now, and for the last few years, almost all my book spending is overseas. And the books that I am buying locally tend to be less and less significant: these days it is pretty much only sci fi pulps with pretty covers. Stuff I could easily do without. Some are almost pity-purchases and nostalgic book-tourism.

Obviously, some of this change is the result of my increasing specialisation as a collector, but I have only been able to specialise as a collector because it has been possible to do so by buying from overseas dealers. After all, it wouldn't have mattered how many shops I visited in Australia, I would never have found a single book by Haywood. As so I have only been able to buy as many works by Haywood because I was able to buy from overseas dealers.

All of which means that, every time a local second-hand bookshop goes broke, or shuts its doors to go online only, I feel guilty. There was a time when my money was propping up these local bookshops, and there was a time when there were a lot of local bookshops for me to spread my money around. Now, there are few shops and those which are still open aren't getting any help from me.

And this is true of new books too. I probably buy more new books now than I have for years, decades even. Once I started lecturing I found that I needed a lot more new books—highly specialised academic titles which are not in any local bookshop—ones I could not simply wait to turn up at a good price. Books that I wouldn't find, even in academic bookshops like the old Oxford and Cambridge Bookshop in Sydney (now Abbeys). Some of these books I am still picking up second hand, but increasingly I am buying them new from Book Depository and Fishpond.

(For a while there, I was relying on Amazon, but their postage rates have become more and more painful—especially since there is no discount for multiple titles. Partly, I assume, because the whole system is automated. Now, it is Book Depository—which is post free—or, if I am in a hurry and they have it in stock, Fishpond.)

Not surprisingly, Book Depository was one of the sites mentioned recently as the reason why A&R and Boarders have gone belly-up. These big bookshops cannot compete with online sellers either on range or price—not by a long shot. And, for a specialist collector like me, places like A&R and Boarders had nothing to offer in terms of knowledge and advice either. Of course, I thought they were surviving on bestsellers and general-interest readers. It looks like they weren't! It looks like they needed me. Rats!

So, every other day a parcel arrived from overseas and every other day another local bookshop closed. And, once again, it was my fault and I feel guilty about it. But I won''t be changing my book-buying habits any time soon. Sorry.

1 comment:

Doc-in-Boots said...

Although, I found the last few times I ventured into Borders, the books were disorganised, there were only random volumes from different series, books weren't shelved in logical places and when staff were approached, they'd simply stare at the space on the shelf I'd just been staring at, often telling me that obviously the book had arrived, but was still boxed up. Which is not to excuse the entire shift in my buying habits, but it didn't help.