August 20 is Australia’s inaugural National Bookshop Day. Inspired by similar promotions in the US and UK, National Bookshop Day is intended to celebrate the important place of the bookshop in our local communities. It’s no accident that the same day sees the launch of the IndieBound campaign which promotes local shopping – in independent bookstores, but also grocers, bakers and chemists. Campaigns like these aim to transform public consciousness, reminding individuals that shopping can be a political act.
As far as bookshops are concerned it’s worth noting that the complex business of books – unlike the plight of local independent grocers or chemists – is a subject with which many consumers are already familiar. Bookselling, in comparison to other sectors of the retail industry, receives considerable media attention. The press here in Australia and internationally routinely profile the struggles of independents to stay afloat. Recent comments by Senator Nick Sherry predicting the demise of bookshops in as few as five years only added fuel to that fire.
It’s likely, however, that Sherry’s focus on bookselling in his announcement of a dedicated program to assist faltering bricks and mortar retail with online initiatives was intended not so much as an attack, but a bid to capture popular attention. Popular focus on the success and failure of bookshops isn’t limited to concerns about monopolies, online retail, globalisation or GST loopholes. The success or failure of our bookshops is taken as an index of the success or failure of our culture.
Cast your mind back twenty years to the era when large chain bookstores posed a threat to the small local independents. The battle between small local stores and chains like the now-defunct Borders was a catalyst for countless opinion columns, government reports and even a romantic comedy starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan (ah, You’ve Got Mail).
The problems made manifest by today’s big business practices, price-gouging and the digital economy are experienced by all small retailers, but the arguments surrounding the need to support our small businesses have a much better chance of being heard when books are the case in point. With the celebration of the work of the bookseller comes the message that books are exceptional objects deserving of protection from the market forces that also effect our medicines, shoes, bread and milk. This is because bookselling is a business particularly prone to cultural romantic fancies. Books are a ‘love affair’; reading a ‘passion’.
Not too long ago I interviewed a journalist-turned-bookseller in London who had made a very literal sea change when she bought a canal boat and transformed it into a floating bookshop. I asked her what had inspired such a decision. She explained her reasons by way of a kind of social shorthand: ‘I’m a woman in my early thirties, selling books (and on a boat, no less) just seemed like the nicest possible life I could imagine for myself.’ The reality, she explained, was of course, less pleasant: the smell of diesel, the problem of collecting stock, the late night canal-side revelers urinating on the boat’s windows…
None of these realities, however, can disrupt just what the bookshop represents to our culture. As much as they are vital retail spaces for the local community, bookshops represent an almost permanently nostalgic notion of collective cultural life that we are losing. In 1960 the US sociologist Edwards Shils noted that the bookshop is ‘a place for intellectual conviviality, and it has the same value as conversation, not as a “civilized art” but as a necessary part of the habitat of a lively intelligence in touch with the world’. It’s this last point – being ‘in touch with the world’ – that we constantly fear is being eroded. No less so than at a time when touch is most often signified by the keypad and the screen sensor.
For local bookstores the opportunity for touch and for face-to-face conversation accounts for their undiscounted prices, not to mention the many community building activities that so many bookstores support. These are the qualities that can’t be reduced to market valuation. The bookstore’s continued ability to generate affection, even among those of us whose actions end up undermining it, speaks to a certain amount of dissatisfaction with the social changes that render institutions like bookstores less viable.
Initiatives like National Bookshop Day and IndieBound articulate an understanding of consumption as tied to personal relations and civic responsibility, reminding consumers that we are losing more than just livelihoods and local revenues when these businesses close down – we’re also losing our quality of life.
Caroline Hamilton is a McKenzie Fellow in Publishing and Communications at the University of Melbourne. Currently she is in London as part of an Endeavour Fellowship conducting research on the future role of bookshops in society. Her research blog can be found here.
Her essay, ‘Bound to the Past: The Book on the Shelf’, appears in Issue Six of Kill Your Darlings, which is available for purchase here.