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Of bookshops

By Malcolm King - posted Friday, 9 August 2013


If you open a copy of Montaigne's Essays you won't find a well-structured treatise. Instead you will find speculative pieces with titles such as ''Of Friendship'', ''Of Liars'' or ''Of Smells''. In the same spirit I write of bookshops.

This Saturday, 10 August is National Bookshop Day. I have much to thank bookshops for.

When I was 12, I walked in to Mary Martins in Adelaide and bought a copy of The Green Years by AJ Cronin. I was hooked. It led me to writing. I became a journalist, then I taught writing and communication at university and now I work in the area of generational change, demographics and creativity. All because of The Green Years.

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The 2012 Nielsen BookScan's snapshot of the Australian retail book trade showed 56.6 million books were sold at a net value of $978 million. It's down nine per cent on the previous year but it's still respectable.

While the Internet has cut counter sales of books, the biggest slug to profitability is rent. Last month I walked down Charing Cross Road in London looking for bargain, and I noticed there were half the number of bookshops trading compared with ten years ago.

Book shopping is a tactile and sensual experience. Smell the pages of a new book. Run your fingers up and down its spine. Admire its colour, design and heft. It feels good in the hand.

How many happy hours have I spent in bookshops? Eons. One day, many years ago, I walked in to a now defunct second hand bookshop in St Kilda, Melbourne. On top of a dusty cupboard I pulled down an original copy of Ernest Hemingway's novel For Whom the Bell Tolls.

A young woman was minding the shop. "That's an old one," she said. "It is, how much?" "How about $10.00?" I paid and literally ran out of the door. It's not the monetary worth. It's the fact I found it and knew it was a classic.

One online comment about bookshops from TheWheeler Centre blog, sums up the magnetic appeal of bookshops.

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"I have some invisible person who walks five steps ahead of me, scopes out potential book stores and then grabs me with an invisible rope and forces me in there. Next they select too many books, hand over my money, and I'm out without any say in the matter... when it comes to supporting Australian publishing I am prepared to pay more."

Bookshops old and new are havens of tranquility. To step inside and browse is to leave the hurley burley behind and enter – not an environment – but a world, which is part lucky dip (boys and girls), for who knows what you will find? For us older readers, it is also part nostalgia, for stories read in our teens (our green years): Great Expectations, Siddhartha, The Alexandria Quartet, Under the Volcano, Catch 22 and more. We carry those stories in us.

The media theorist Neil Postman wrote in Amusing Ourselves to Death, "What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one."This is not true. E-reader and tablet sales are booming with e-books taking about 10 per cent of total book sales in Australia and rising fast. The biggest market for e-books is women over 45.

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About the Author

Malcolm King works in generational workforce change. He was an associate director at DEEWR Labour Market Strategy in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University. He also runs a professional writing business called Republic.

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