Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Bookshops of Brisbane

I love bookshops; always have. I just about grew up in The Exchange, in the medieval seaside village of Dalkey, Co. Dublin, in the '80s. Back then there was no Amazon, no ebooks. There was just Michael, the strangely impersonal owner, and tons of second-hand books. Penguin Modern Classics were the touchstone of high art. I still have "The Plague", bought in 1983 for £1.65.

I still go to bookshops all the time. On a trip to Canungra recently the woman in the town's only bookshop let me have a 1957 Pelican softback, "The Uses of Literacy", for free when I tried to buy it, such was its wretched condition. When I first went in, I asked if there was a science section. "Science fiction", she corrected me. "No", I said, "science." We were talking in italics to each other, it seemed. Anyway, I got my aforementioned softback and a recent David Bodanis science book, "Electric Universe". I could have been back in the Exchange again.

The Uses of Bookshops
But the last two times I went to Riverbend Books in Bulimba, one of my regular haunts here in Brisbane, the way I used the shop made me think about the role bookshops have in my life.

Bookshops have to be more than about books, it's becoming clear. In case it's not, let me help make it clear. I have no compunction about using the shelves of Folio, Riverbend, and Dymock's as advertisements for books. I can grubby their beautiful hardbacks with their deckled edges (I try not to, I really do), distractedly put them back in the wrong spot, and waste the attendants' time asking about when such and such a book will come out, and all the rest. Then I add whatever books have taken my fancy to my fishpond wishlist (the least one can do is support Ozzie businesses) on my iPhone, sometimes - displaying great sangfroid - from within the store itself. And so does everyone else, I'm sure. And I'm someone who, as I said in the first sentence, loves bookshops. I'm someone who wants them there, on the street, in my town. We all do. No one agrees it's a good idea that there should be no bookshops. And collectively we're making sure some of them disappear.

Or are we?
Within the last few years, ebooks have become acceptable to plenty of people who five years ago were probably telling each other about the undiminished pleasure of holding a book in their hand, the satisfaction of beholding a shelf full of literary and emotional artefacts to share with their kids and friends. But the thing we hadn't foreseen was the pleasure of holding a well-designed phone or tablet in your hand. That's a nice feeling too. And a new feeling. An app like the Kindle app, Stanza, or iBooks makes it feel great.

For the record, the first ebook I read was H. G. Wells' "The Time Traveller" (which I notice has sadly been usurped from its rightful place as the claimant of the first couple of search results for that phrase by a book which has nothing really to do with time travel). I think I felt guilty about not reading 'real' books, not reading 'the classics', because the next book I read on the iPhone was "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes". But then the guilt went away and the sun came out. In May I got a Motorola Xoom Android tablet, and I immediately bought two new books through the Kindle store. Even though I knew you could do it, it still amazed me how easily I had come to be in virtual possession of two brand new books, barely on the shelves in the CBD.

Bookshops are doing it tough. That's what you keep hearing. Angus & Robertson and Borders have gone. Same with McGills. In the case of A&R, good riddance. I have mixed feelings about Borders though. Too many Twilight calendars and DVDs. And they played really offensive music like Coldplay or Elton John far too loud. At the same time though, one of the last things I remember about them was their prominent display of their ebook reader, the Kobo, so it's not as if they were fiddling while Rome burned.

But the last time I was in Riverbend with my family, we all had breakfast and got a couple of kids books, spending about 70 dollars in all. Kids books are still mostly ad-hoc purchases for me, things that I am unlikely to turn to fishpond for. And fishpond doesn't do eggs benedict and coffee. Amazon probably does. It would recommend you get toast with it like other people who ordered eggs benedict do. So, bookshops still get my money, by providing services in a collegiate, sophisticated environment. Good food and ambiance matter.

Incidentally, one thing confuses me: on an average Sunday afternoon's visit to Riverbend there might be 20 people outside on the deck having coffee, and maybe 5 people inside. I've been there plenty of times and that's about the average ratio. So why is it mainly known as a bookshop? Why, for that matter, is Mary Ryan's across the road, with all it's crystal trinkets and lifestyle tat also mainly known as a bookshop? It seems that the books are being pushed further and further back by the spreading weeds of woo.

Foursquare attitude
In light of the social media onslaught that everyone knows is coming, it's interesting to chat to bookshop owners about one service that could have quite an effect on their business if we're to believe Techcrunch et al. That's Foursquare. What's that, they say? Well, that's the iPhone app (and web app) where you tell the internet where you are, and you let astute business know that you've been in their shop 5 times this month, and maybe they should stop treating you like a total stranger. The women of Riverbend (for it seems to be mostly women), while pleasant and helpful, seem to have no idea that I regularly shop there. That's ok: I don't really expect them to, nor do I want a chat every time I go there. But they're competing with sites which are getting smarter with every purchase I make on them.

The guy at Macgill's was somewhat dismissive of the whole checking in thing. He told me that they only sold technical books that you couldn't get anywhere else in Brisbane, and so therefore didn't need to offer discounts to 'mayors'. Stung by the realization that my virtual ownership of his establishment according to some social media site didn't confer automatic discounts, I left, lost in admiration at the way he was confidently flipping the bird to the future.

The one thing that matters
This is all very nice, but there is only one thing that really makes me go back again and again to certain bookshops, and that is this: that they convince me that they believe books matter. I work in IT, and no one there seems to believe that. Of all the devs I've met over the last few years, only one or two have ever struck me as having the slightest thing to say about literature or books. That's the world I inhabit, and we're supposed to be educated.