I was recently challenged by a friend over WhatsApp. The conversation went something like this:
He: What is the value proposition of a bookstore to a book buyer?
Me: The ability to browse through books, find books related to your tastes, check the contents to see if the book appeals to you for its plot and narrative. Plus we do the hard work of having book launches, book discussions and such…
He: I get discovery, browsing, recommendations from Amazon and deep discounts. A small percentage actually cares for the kind of events you have described. We buys a lot of books for our kids man, and I really tried buying from you, but I don’t need discovery, I know what I want and on price Amazon kills.
I knew where he was going, and I made a feeble argument that people who swear by books actually care for book events. But I knew he was right – price trumps over everything else, and no bookseller can come close to offering the discounts Amazon does.
So why should bookstores exist? And why are booksellers bothering?
Firstly, book purchases have still not moved online as much as one may like to believe. Institutions and schools, for example, would rather go to a bookshop and buy books in India. This they might do for a variety of reasons e.g. there is no credit card to use online, and cash-on-delivery doesn’t quite work. Or because they buy many books at once and would like to see and go through the books they buy.
In India, book delivery isn’t prompt either, so last minute purchases for books-as-gifts still happen at bookshops. In both cases, bookshops fill crucial voids in the current online purchasing environment.
The point of book discovery is a tricky one. For bookshops to truly help book buyers discover new titles, booksellers will have to first change their buying habits. Currently this is how book buying works: A salesman comes and displays a set of books, many of them recently released, and will tell the book seller which titles are “fast moving” and which aren’t. The bookseller, in the absence of book reviews and comprehensive publisher catalogues, will go by this wisdom that the publisher representatives offer. Or she might go and purchase from the bestseller list, which again is a list that feeds itself, to the complete exclusion of other books that may have not gotten noticed.
Instead, a smart bookseller will (and many actually do) restrict their books to only a few genres. They will keep an eye on all books being released within those genres, sourcing such information from various sources, and selecting only the few that match their customers’ preferences, or their choice of genres. This might require a lot of patience, tedious and mind-numbing as the book sourcing process tends to be. Very often booksellers want to order a particular title only to be told by the book distributors that it cannot be delivered. Nonetheless, patience is key and the consummate bookseller will only settle for the books she wants to stock at the bookshop.
There is always the temptation to have all the latest books stocked up, the argument being that a customer might come searching for one such title, and have to leave disappointed if the title is not stocked. A good bookseller must take that risk, and, in fact be able to suggest another, maybe better book, in its stead, should a particular title be unavailable. Discovery is all about being surprised and a good bookseller will do just that – surprise an unsuspecting customer with her recommendation. This, in turn, means that the bookseller should first be intimately knowledgeable about the books she stocks, something that is difficult to do when one tells the salesman to “give three copies of all new releases.”
Of course, it is important to have new releases too, but usually these are often the books that are most discounted on many online ecommerce platforms. The riches, and opportunities to best suprise the reader, lie in the publisher’s back and mid lists. A good knowledge of books is therefore prescribed, so is the practice to choose only those “bestsellers” that are within the genres the bookseller has chosen to have in the bookshop.
Although my friend may deny it, I am sure a customer would value a honest recommendation. One he knows is in his interest, not something that the bookseller has peddled because the book has remained unsold for a long time. This we have found to be true especially in the case of parents who are buying books for their children. They are genuinely grateful for a different kind of book, especially if their child has taken to it immediately.
Bookselling therefore cannot be something you do on the side, for it requires a lot of emotional investment. Booksellers not only need to know their books, they need to know their readers too. They need to understand what books work and what don’t.
All these points are equal to every bookseller, and in the presence of competition, it is only the bookseller’s efforts that will carry the day. But there is more to a bookshop than just physical space, yet it is that physical space that make most bookshops exciting, and invaluable to those who frequent it.
The Dogears Bookshop is a rather small one, as bookshops go, with a space of just 30m2, most of it covered with books. Yet, in that small space, we have had poetry sessions, book launches and discussions, theatre performances, film screenings, workshops, book club meetings, book readings for children, book swap meetings, musical performances, and costume parties for halloween. On many days we have had really bad turnouts, on others, we have had housefulls. Following each of such sessions, we have had participants stay back, browse through our shelves, meet us and each other, and between those stacked up books, develop a sense of community. There are regulars, we know them and they know each other, and I am sure, were they to meet on the street, they will know where we’ve met before. In this age of isolation, fuelled by the desire to busy oneself with various social media, this must come as a relief – that there are spaces out there, where you can actually meet each people and have a decent conversation about books and maybe even other similar interests. Bookshops bind communities together. That must be a good thing.