One of my oldest friends, recent mother, and published author (damn her hide) commented on Facebook the other day:

Would like to know what makes Borders think they can charge $80 for a hardcover novel (not signed or anything). No wonder they’ve gone into receivership.1

Naturally, the owner of the book chain blames THE INTERNET (dun dun dun) for its woes. A simple glance at Amazon tells you that this opinion has its merits: the famous webstore has been selling books online for over fifteen years, and it’s estimated net income of 2010 was US$1.152 billion. That is a lot of money, and it is money that Borders Australia and Angus & Robertson lost.

Of course, Amazon and The Book Depository (my preferred online retailer) don’t have to deal with Australian publishing restrictions. Essentially, booksellers in Australia have to deal with ‘parallel import restrictions’. Good ol’ protectionism: a brick-and-mortar bookseller cannot source books from overseas authors on the cheap and sell them below fixed prices within this country.

This means that the international online book market is easily able to maintain prices well below those of their real-world Australian competitors. This harms even local online sellers such as Fishpond.com.au.

So for all the problems online stores pose to sellers such as Borders and Angus & Robertson, the Australian Government’s protection racket is a more significant problem. In late 2009, the Government decided to keep these restrictions despite the Productivity Commission ruling that “the ban was effectively a trade barrier, resulting in some readers paying up to 35 per cent more for their books than readers overseas.”

herp derp derp

I am somewhat saddened to see Angus & Robertson go out of business, as they are one of Australia’s great book sellers (since 1886). Much of my childhood was spent lurking in their stores, browsing through their SF sections, bored out of my tiny adolescent skull.

Except. Except that their selection was awful. Their prices tremendous. Their staff insulting. Did I mention their poor selection? Because it was pretty dreadful.

John Birmingham notes that, back in the day, Borders had a great backlist. Why, one could wander in and find novels that were unfindable anywhere else- a feature of which I availed myself of quite regularly, when I had the money (and boy, did one need the money). That stopped being the case at some point over the last decade. Angus & Robertson got even worse:

I’m not sure whether you’ve been into an A&R store the last couple of years. Jesus, talk about depressing. They became giant dump bins for failed remainder copies imported directly from the US. Shit books by no-name authors, poorly printed on cheap stock.

Well said, John. I carefully avoid A&R stores nowadays for this exact reason: they suck. It is actively depressing to walk into a bookstore and see precisely nothing that I have not either read before or would rather burn than see on my home shelf.2

Mister Birmingham and myself are not the only ones who see the deadly combination of sucky stores and pernicious prices as murdering the local book industry. Personally, I prefer to browse in a real bookshop- especially those with music and coffee and lovely wooden shelves and attractive young men and women with cheerful grins offering to help:

Derek Dryden, owner of a Newtown bookshop, Better Read Than Dead, said it is hard to compete with online outlets like the Book Depository offering titles at half the price he has to charge.

“When the difference is $25 you can’t really blame the customer for going for the cheaper option,” he said. “You can be as nice as you want and have as much ambience as you want but you still can’t be half price.”

Exactly. And Better Read than Dead is a pretty nice shop, too. I always try to stop in whenever wandering by. It is one of the joys of Newtown, all the bookstores scattered among her streets.

It has been pointed out it is all very well to talk about one’s fondness for local bookstores- quite another to decide to shop there. For all that indie bookshop owner Corrie Perkin claims that the lovely stores, witty staff and all that comes at a price- the simple fact is that I, like so many others, am poor.

I cannot afford to buy a novel at a lovely store with polished wooden floors and a handsome young man with a goatee and a PhD in literature discussing the flaws of the Beowulf movie with me3 when said novel comes at double the cost of getting it from thebookdepository.co.uk. I simply cannot.

Tim White of Books for Cooks describes the bookseller as “a bespoke retailer. The experience of being in an independent bookstore is a bit like saying, ‘I don’t want to buy a suit off the rack, I want one that is made to fit me.’ A good bookseller will match you with your book, and the book fits.”

This never happens. I suppose it would be nice if it did- but is it worth paying nearly double? I doubt it.

On the other hand, one can get this kind of service, along with the ambience, atmosphere, useful assistance and all that: at your local second-hand store.

Elizabeth’s, in Newtown and Sydney City, or Urchin Books in Marrickville, or Sappho Books in Glebe or- well, feel free to comment with your own local favourite.

Second hand bookstores are where you can get bespoke books. The classics with old, faded annotations in the corner; the favourite hardback with the spine cracked; yellowing pages and that wonderful, musty ancient-book-smell. Unique books for unique individuals.

Plus, super cheap.

Save getting brand new books for online shopping- cheap, reliable, straight to your door (or held at the post office because you live in a flat, dammit). For individual sales and support of local business, and to get that personalised book like no-one else has: head down to a second hand local.

Alternative hypothesis: I am just annoyed, bitter because Borders never stocks anything on Old Irish.

1: Best comment: “was it magical? did it produce some sort of dizzying high?”
2: I say this tongue firmly in cheek. Book burning is a vile crime, the last resort of the religious and the fascist.
3: Although if there are any such young men out there, do let me know. Or women. I’m just sayin’.