Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The misery of chain bookstores
Borders and Waterstone's sap me of the will to live

Guardian blogger Charlotte Higgins is in despair.............

Yesterday morning the spring was definitively removed from my step, as it always is, after an encounter with my "local" book shop.
In this case, local means Borders. I needed to get hold of one book and two mainstream pop CDs. And I wanted to buy some book plates from Paperchase, which is a concession tucked in there.

Walk in and you are bombarded with the visual cacophony of three-for-two offers, TV chefs and Parky's biography. Of course they have a wide selection of books, but the place is such a jungle – Aldi is surely more of a pleasure to visit, and I don't say much there – that locating what you want is a nightmare, and as for an enjoyable browse, forget it.

I headed upstairs and tried to find the CDs. A staff member, appealed to, said, candidly, "Our music selection is terrible." No go, then. I tried for the book, edging my way towards the relevant section, where the shelves were full of misshelved volumes and a mess. It wasn't there. I talked to the staff member again (who gets full points for being pleasant). He found the book on the computer, where it registered as "in stock", but he couldn't locate it on the shelves. He told me that the system did not necessarily reflect reality. Bookplates - well, forget it. The assisant I spoke to didn't know what the word meant.
Read the rest Charlotte's piece at the Guardian online.
I think it is time that New Zealand publishers had a hard look at how the chain bookstores are failing them.
I was having a coffee this morning out at Kohimarama when a fellow I know slightly came up and, perplexed, told me he had heard a review on Radio New Zealand National recently of a book about the international banana trade.
He liked the sound of it so much he went to a Paper Plus and then Whitcoulls to buy a copy. They did not have it in stock but showed no interest whatsoever in getting it for him. Too expensive for one book, no doubt. So he let it go.
That was the third time this year that has happened to him. He can't understand it.
I told him of course about Unity Books and other independents but he doesn't live in Mt Eden or Ponsonby or Takapuna and doesn't get into the city very often.
One has to wonder how many book sales are lost every year because of this refusal of the chain booksellers, and some independents one would have to say, to give service and act in their own interests.
Of course single copy special orders are expensive to handle but think of how many sales they may engender over the years by giving service and encouraging readers. Years ago when I was a bookseller in Napier I built my business around seeking special orders from our customers. It was expensive at first but before too long it repaid itself may times over.
The really ironic thing is that these inefficient chain booksellers are the very firms who get most favoured treatment by the publishers. They should get lesser terms. not better.
What do readers of my blog think?


Anonymous said...

Graham - I agree so much: if independent booksellers provide me with good service, I come back again & again (and I spend $3-4000 a year on books - my major vice aside from food & drink.) I've stopped buying from the big chains (which get the best prices from publishers as you pointed out, but which needs to be re-iterated.) Ironically my local (Franz Josef) Take Note is part of a big chain, but they'll go to considerable trouble to get some of my weird requests, and each franchise is independently owned...

Anonymous said...

Classics is a small independent bookstore in Whangarei and we pride ourselves and promote the fact that we can find any book in the world on any subject, in print, out of print, rare, used hard to find. It is a rare occasion for us not to find or meet the customers request. It has become an important part of our customer service and transfers into all products in store. Our local major chains refer their customers to us for service and we thank them for that!

Anonymous said...

Graham, of course the big chains are useless, and deserve to be abandoned by serious book buyers. They just don't care, as long as they're wringing the last drop of discount from publishers and hiring staff who won't cost them too much - ie, kids with little cultural memory.

A few years ago, I went in to buy one of my own books for a friend, with a Whitcoulls voucher, and was told by a smiley young person they would have to order it from....Australia! I was not aware Steele Roberts warehoused their books in Oz?

Seriously, we just have to circle the wagons and buy from the small independents, or good University bookshops - the Paper Plus/Whitcoulls culture is not a true reflection of bookselling.

Fifi Colston said...

A couple of years ago, a fellow writer with a new and very good Junior Fiction novel went into Whitcoulls to see if it was on their shelves. Not seeing it there, her son asked the sales person if it was available. The salesgirl said she could order it but if he wanted to read a really good book, try this- and handed him a Harry Potter... You wouldn't get that from the independents. I would rather pay a little more and get someone who knows the book, is passionate about it and will find it for me if I want it. I find very little reason to go into Whitcoulls and Borders; their selection of NZ childrens fiction is appalling and completely unsupportive of our industry and paperclips are cheaper at the $2 shop.

Anonymous said...

Re the remarks on your blog yesterday, for your information, we average between 200 and 250 special orders a week and procure what are mainly the most esoteric and arcane books from all around the world for our retail and library customers. I am guessing the book the person you were talking could be The International Banana Trade by Julian Roche, published by CRC Press. Or there is another book on the Caribbean banana trade that has featured lately and it may be the title the guy wanted? We would be happy to pursue further if requested.. It is Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by D Koeppel. We actually have it on our system and we could obtain it from the USA within two weeks - it is $55 but there is a paperback version due out in January.

Ken McIntyre
Company Manager
University Bookshop (Auckland) Ltd
2 Alfred St
Auckland 1010, New Zealand

Anonymous said...

Independent booksellers are great - in Christchurch Scorpio Books and the University Bookshop know their stuff about books. It is up to book buyers to support them. I guess the other thing if you can't access a good bookshop or can't afford to buy is to check your local public library. I guessed the banana book might be Bananas the fruit that changed the world and both Auckland and Christchurch Public Libraries have it in stock. It is written by Dan Koppel who also wrote a book about bird watching obsession called To See Every Bird on Earth; a father, a son and a life long obsession.

Anonymous said...

From an Wellingtonian independent's point of view, we get at least a couple of people a day wondering aloud why the chains refused to do what seems so simple. And yeah, it can be a little difficult to get hold of certain things, but if you don't want to help people find the titles they love then why are you working with books anyway?

Anonymous said...

Many years ago, I worked as a firstly part time then full time staff member in one of the chain stores. I know I am perhaps one of the few, but I took pride in being able to source books for people whether they were in stock, or able to be ordered through NZ publishers or abroad. To the point where often other staff would ask for my help when customers were after a book.
Retail (and in fact publishing!) aren't known for providing good wages/salary, and you have to hope that there are more people out there who will work in the industry for the love of books, rather than monetary reward. Sadly, I think this isn't so much the case on the retail side.

Anonymous said...

My 2 cents worth: as an Assistant Librarian in a girls' college the very best service we get in Wanganui is from Paige's Book Gallery. They can find anything we want, at a good price and with a no problem attitude. Local and loving it.