One month after opening her first bookshop in Hawksburn in 2009, Corrie Perkin hosted an author event with two-time Miles Franklin Award winner Alex Miller. It was a big success. “People said to me, ‘You’re on to something with this’,” Corrie says.
They were right. In the seven years since, Corrie’s My Bookshop stores in Hawksburn has hosted the likes of Malcolm Fraser, Tom Keneally, Christos Tsiolkas, Marcia Langton, Elliot Perlman, Don Watson, Stephanie Alexander – to name just a few – at often-sold-out reader events. The bookshop, once simply a place to buy books, was becoming a cultural hub.
Back then Corrie and other independent booksellers knew change was critical. Faced with the twin threats of e-reader tablets and online bookselling behemoths such as Amazon, they could see the future for bookshops lay in community engagement, real people standing in a real room talking about real books, often with food and wine, rather than a parcel delivered to your letterbox.
Before long bookstores started to play a role in re-animating local shopping strips. “Increasingly, our beautiful villages of Melbourne are being threatened by online trading,” Corrie says. “People say, ‘What’s happening to our village?’. What’s happening is that people are buying online and are missing the connection of people.”
Joel Becker, chief executive of the Australian Booksellers Association, says the industry faced a “perfect storm” six years ago, when bookstores worldwide appeared under threat. “There was the introduction of new technologies like e-readers, and the companies promoting them were suggesting that in five years, they would account for 50 per cent of book sales,” Joel says.
“But the reality has been that after reaching 30 per cent of the US market, the figures [for e-books] have dropped and plateaued out at around 20 per cent. In Australia, that is closer to 12-15 per cent of sales.”
The dire predictions served as a wake-up call for savvy independent booksellers, who recognised they needed to change to survive. They are now enjoying something of a renaissance, as a result.
Last year, Readings opened a shop at Westfield Doncaster and a children’s bookshop next door to its famous site in Lygon Street – taking the number of Readings stores across Melbourne to seven.
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Last September, independent bookseller Chris Redfern opened a new Avenue Bookstore on Swan Street, Richmond, adding to his shops in Albert Park (opened in 1986) and Elsternwick (2012).
Chris admits his expansion might have appeared brave, but says he saw a community hunger and an opportunity. He says when Borders and Angus & Robertson collapsed in 2011, the perception was that bricks-and-mortar bookshops were in trouble.
“Borders’ aggressive store openings and subsequent decline forced the closure of many independents – a trend that happened world-wide. Following their closing there were far fewer bookshops, suggesting a new era of bookshop-less neighborhoods.”
But he says Melburnians realised the value of having a good bookshop in the heart of their community. “People want their kids to read books and to be able to touch and explore books – in their own neighbourhood,” says Chris.
Shops that could offer a carefully curated range of books, knowledgeable staff and good service had a real point of difference that enabled them to build a niche and flourish.
The attraction of local bookshops over online providers such as Amazon is the opportunity to talk about books, rather than simply swipe a credit card, Chris says. “People. Conversation. A tangible experience – plus immediacy,” he says. “Amazon is a great resource, but it’s impersonal, no human contact, and delayed gratification.”
Last year the quality of Melbourne’s independent bookshop scene was recognised when Readings won International Bookstore of the Year at the London Book Fair. The judges noted Readings’ “community outreach and support of Australian authors”.
Readings marketing manager Nina Kenwood says the group runs about 250 events a year in its seven shops, as well as organising three literary prizes, producing a monthly printed newsletter featuring staff book reviews and recommendations, and giving back to the community through its charitable arm, The Readings Foundation.
“People see bookshops as more than just another retail space,” Nina says. “They are places for the community to gather, for children to discover a love of reading, and for ideas to be shared.”