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A bookstore is far more than just another business

As seen on Ten Daily

Some are musty, ill-lit and crowded with stock, tucked shyly into the streetscape, while others are proud and bright, their doors open wide in welcome to passersby. Whatever shape they take, bookshops are far more than just businesses.

There are many reasons why bookstores stand apart from other shops, offering benefits for customers and communities that extend far beyond the products they sell.

For individuals, bookshops are places of possibility, where they might find, not just what they are looking for, but also, what they didn’t realise they were seeking. It might be in a forgotten classic or a contemporary masterpiece, a debut or a long-loved writer, that they will find words that will change their lives, introducing a new perspective or way of thinking. Or perhaps it is a picture book that will bring a tear to their eye or create a lasting memory with a child.

But the beauty of a bookshop doesn’t just lie in the possibilities within the books. There is also a romance in bookstores that is hard to imagine in a supermarket or shoe shop. This sense of romance derives from the nature of bookshops, not just as businesses, but as community hubs, where like-minded visitors are welcome to spend time. And, browsing among others who are similarly passionate about literature, who knows who you might meet? It’s no wonder that bookshops feature so regularly in film, from Notting Hill to You’ve Got Mail, Before Sunset to When Harry Met Sally.

I remember spending many hours at the iconic Readings bookstore in Carlton when I was at university, open later than most other shops, with its doors flung open on warm nights to welcome any wandering soul. I am not the only one who is sentimental about this particular bookshop. In a speech at the opening of the refurbished store, writer Andrea Goldsmith spoke of Readings as not just a place where books were sold, but also a social hub.

“Ah Readings, where would we be without you? … Amid all the uncertainties of life Readings has been a bedrock.”

This role of bookshops as a community hub of sorts is part of the reason that independent bookstores have survived in the face of fierce competition from Amazon and other online retailers, according to a Harvard Business School study. Researcher Ryan Raffaelli found that bookshops played an important role in promoting community values, offering a curated inventory that was more personal than an online store, and offering a cultural meeting place, with their book signings, lectures and children’s story times.

Just as interesting were the people who commented on the research, reaffirming the role that libraries play in communities, and the simple joy of browsing and discovering books.

Bookshops are not just valuable for locals, but can also be a part of a visitor’s experience of a place. A bookstore is often at the heart of a coastal shopping strip – a place of calm amid the holidaying hordes and a place for those who have exhausted the supply of books they brought in their suitcase to restock.

I’m thinking of the always-popular hole-in-the-wall Whileaway Bookshop and Café in Port Douglas, Torquay Books in coastal Victoria and Paradise Bookshop in Daylesford. Even in regional Australian towns, bookshops can be a centre for visitors. In Ballarat, a bookshop tucked into a gold rush-era building attracts weekenders from Melbourne to its warren of little rooms stuffed with books.

As writer and staunch defender of bookstores and libraries, Neil Gaiman famously said,

“What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not foolin’ a soul.”

In the same way as literary festivals, The School of Life, The Wheeler Centre and libraries across Australia offer meeting places for those interested in cultural debate and conversation, bookstores fulfil the need for a community hub.

In some countries, governments are recognising that bookshops are more than just businesses, and for their roles in the community, supporting and promoting literature. The Italian government has announced a plan to offer tax breaks for bookshops of up to 20,000 Euros in an attempt to stem a rash of closures. In announcing the initiative, the head of Italy’s booksellers association said bookshops contributed not just to access to culture, but also to the employment of authors, publishers and printers.

In China, the Beijing municipal government plans to invest $A10 million per year to support bookstores in the city, aiming to increase the number of bookstores to 200 in the next two years. There are plans for one centralised bookshop in each district of Beijing to serve as a hub for cultural activities, in cooperation with public libraries.

Now that where we buy our books has become a battlefield – from the impossible-to-compete-with prices of Big W to the international online giants of Amazon and Book Depository – supporting local bookshops is more important than ever.

On Love Your Bookshop Day, and any other day of the year, we should consider money and time spent in a local bookshop to be exceedingly well spent.


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