At the risk of sounding like I have been around for way too many years, I remember a time when everything you read came printed on paper – that’s right, that mystical age before computers, the internet and e-readers. That age, before the written word was acquirable at the touch of a fingertip, manifesting as if by magic on an electronically powered device.
Hailed as the liberation of readers everywhere, electronic books – and the purchasing of them in cyberspace – has brought with it accessibility previously unimagined: as long as you have a functioning computer or device, the internet and a working credit card you are now able to participate in ordering and reading what you want, where you want. What was once the sole domain of bookshops and libraries, has now become another one of the internet’s sensational ways of changing the way we engage with information, including books, magazines, journals and everything in between.
However, while we were busy reading Mills and Boon on our Kindle (so much less embarrassing than having the actual books laying around the house), or ordering the next installment of the Jack Reacher series on Amazon or Fishpond at two am in the morning, bookshops around the world were feeling the squeeze. Bookselling giants like Borders went bankrupt, other bookshop chains changed to web-based selling, while thousands of smaller bookshops closed their doors in the wake of losing their once-loyal customers, who were now able to source their books cheaper and more conveniently from half-way across the world.
However, amidst the doom and gloom of the death of the local bookshop there has been an unexpected revival. A revival that may not yet be seismic enough to rock the Richter scale, but which nevertheless shows that many of us would prefer to browse the aisles of a good bookshop, perusing the many possibilities of what to buy while holding an actual book in our hand, smelling that delicious smell that only a new book has, and chatting to staff about great books.
Writer Ann Patchett chimed into the debate of the ‘death of the bookshop’ with her essay The Bookshop Strikes Back, an eloquent ode to the bookshop, which charts her experience of opening an independent bookshop in her town, after all other bookshops had closed down. Using the mantra ‘build it and they will come’, Patchett found unexpected joys in the now thriving business, and gives hope to bookshop owners everywhere when she writes ‘you may have heard the news that the independent bookstore is dead, that books are dead, that maybe even reading is dead – to which I say, “Pull up a chair, friend. I have a story to tell”.’
The British Publisher’s Association reported in May 2016 of printed book sales rising for first time in four years, as eBook sales declined. Locally in New Zealand, evidence of the revitalisation of the bookshop is found in a significant rise sales country-wide, many of which – according to Booksellers NZ – are attributable to provincial, and independent bookshops.
The change in readers seeking out bookshops once more has been attributed partially to readers realising the limitations of an e-book, as well as factors of community connectedness and the drive to look at more sustainable and local alternatives within the way that people choose to spend their money. This, coupled with the fact that many independent bookshops have been able to be creatively adaptable and responsive to their customer’s needs, means that there is more than a glimmer of hope for those who still like the idea of paper, of turning actual pages, and of finding that special ‘happy place’ among the rows of bookshelves.