I recently wandered into my local Salvos, a quiet store just next to the Mount Waverley train station. I was looking for books, but nothing in particular. What caught my eye was quite odd – a little guide to bookshops in Victoria. Published in 1998 by the now defunct National Book Council, the entries are vastly out of date, but endearing all the same. Between the pages of Bookshops of Victoria are listings for specialist bookstores – everything from Christian and automotive bookshops to stores dedicated to Ancient Egypt, renewable energy, crafts, boating, witchcraft, crime fiction, or from specific countries such as Nusantara Bookshop, which sold only Indonesian books. Over twenty years later, what does the specialist book industry look like in Australia?
The death of the (printed) book and the bookshop is the industry’s boy who cried wolf – always on the horizon, lurking behind one closure at a time, behind the dips and wanes in sales. The end of 2018 and beginning of 2019 has already seen several bookshop closures across the country; Books of Buderim in the Sunshine Coast, Written Dimension in Noosa, Brisbane’s Boswells Books, Embiggen Books and one of Tim’s Bookshops in Melbourne, and after over thirty years of operating, Collected Works, Melbourne’s only specialist poetry bookshop, closed its doors. Collected Works was instrumental to the vibrancy of poetry in Australia, providing specialised poetry knowledge and stock like no other. Michael Brennan, publisher of Vagabond Press, told me that ‘Collected Works is without question irreplaceable. That said, the number of booksellers taking an interest in poetry in Melbourne seems to have exploded over the last few years.’ With this in mind, I asked specialist bookshop owners and industry experts about the state of bookselling in Australia and how readers are accessing specialised books.
There are no doubt different types of speciality booksellers too – those that specialise in genres of books that could also be found in general stores, and those that focus on professional or hobby books rarely found elsewhere, with topics such as cars, boats, law, or medicine. Secondhand specialists abound as well, such as Melbourne’s radical New International Co-op and Canberra’s Asia Bookroom, but aren’t subjected to the same pressures as the rest of the industry.
The death of the bookshop is the industry’s boy who cried wolf – always on the horizon, lurking behind one closure at a time.
Readers of specialist books know what they want – as Robbie Egan, CEO of the Australian Booksellers Association, told me, ‘people who really want specific books will make the effort to get them’. Graeme Aitken, buyer and manager of The Bookshop Darlinghurst, a queer bookseller in Sydney, went further, suggesting that readers can easily buy books online or at any shop if they know exactly what they want – but if they need recommendations, a specialist store can help.
Readers come to specialist bookstores for the staff’s wealth of knowledge. Tim from White Dwarf Books, Perth’s science fiction and fantasy bookshop, notes that while general independents are fantastic, it is difficult for staff to be knowledgeable about all the areas of the store. Many general independents might not separate specific books – romance might be with general fiction, science fiction and fantasy could be together, and it is difficult to find queer literature because it too is in the closet full of other books.
Specialist bookstores also offer a sense of community. Michael Brennan, publisher of Vagabond Press, reflected on Collected Works, ‘No doubt part of the legacy of Collected Works is the vibrancy of the poetry community in Melbourne.’ Bookstores have long been home to events and offer a dedicated community the space to share their love of books; White Dwarf runs Warhammer and Dungeons & Dragons sessions.
While most bookshops rely on Christmas and other celebrations such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, this is not always the case for specialists. For The Bookshop Darlinghurst, Sydney’s Mardi Gras creates a flurry of sales, however this is inconsistent throughout the year, as the Northern Hemisphere’s publishing schedule lines up with their own Pride celebrations, not Australia’s. This shows us that a specialist store needs a strong connection to the community it is selling to, and this is apparent in Just Tassie Book’s approach. Michael Roach, from Just Tassie Books – a bookstore from within The Book Cellar that specialises in new and used Tasmanian books – says that location can make a difference. ‘In our case we have positioned The Book Cellar in [Campbell Town,] a small country town on the main highway between Hobart and Launceston, making it a destination for all Tasmanian book lovers as well as passing tourists looking for an interesting heritage and cultural experience.’
Bookselling jobs are hard to come by, least of all specialist bookselling jobs, and it is difficult to imagine starting a career today as a specialist bookseller.
Location and community can also have an effect on surrounding bookstores’ stock as well. General independent bookstores in Tasmania stock current release Tasmanian books, particularly non-fiction, as Roach notes. However, chain and loss leader stores don’t tend to stock Tasmanian books, as the market is small. Roach says this applies to online competition as well. For now, Just Tassie Books has a particular niche that supplies a steady demand of customers.
Bookselling jobs are hard to come by, least of all specialist bookselling jobs, and it is difficult to imagine starting a career today as a specialist bookseller. Like most people in the book industry, the specialist booksellers I spoke to say they do what they do for the love of books and their community, not for the money. One owner admitted paying themselves well below minimum wage – let alone at an appropriate award level – just to keep the business going and to pay other employees. Other owners may work six or seven days per week in order to keep costs down.
Of the owners I spoke to, most shops were run by one or two people, with only a small team of booksellers and buyer/managers. Few owners of specialist bookshops were women, following the pattern of the Australian book industry; that although women make up the vast majority of employees, senior positions are still held by men.
For some booksellers, finding the specialist books is a puzzle in the first place. Aitken, from The Bookshop Darlinghurst, expressed frustration at the detective work required to find LGBTQIA+ books to stock; ‘publishers like to think of books as being for everyone and don’t want to limit the market.’ Some publishers may send sales reps with information, but most don’t mention the writer’s identity, or if there’s any queer content. The Bookshop Darlinghurst manage to stock titles that can’t be found elsewhere because of the staff’s dedication to finding exciting queer stock.
When readers already know what books they want, as many specialist customers do, the competition from online retailers like Amazon and Book Depository is fierce.
The future of specialty bookselling is as uncertain as the future of any part of the book industry, and yet still sustainable so long as readers love physical books and the experience of walking into bookstores. When readers already know what books they want, as many specialist customers do, the competition from online retailers like Amazon and Book Depository is fierce – however, there are exciting ventures using the uncertainty of online selling to their advantage. Underground Books, born out of Underground Writers, now run an online bookstore dedicated to Australian debut books, providing the research that readers may not be able to find when trying to support the Australian book industry. Their sales go back into ‘helping the next generation of voices to reach [readers]’ through providing information to readers and offering writing workshops. Other specialist booksellers sell both online and in store, providing a greater reach to their community.
Specialist booksellers are surviving because of their relentless dedication to their subjects, whether that be science fiction and fantasy, cookbooks, travel guides or poetry. Online bookselling and social media are certainly aiding the sales of specialist books, and as Egan notes, this ‘makes them truly part of a global network’.
We may have substantially fewer bookshops now than the 1998 Bookshops of Victoria lists, but we are not starving for quality or speciality, or for passionate booksellers.