When Auckland Women's Bookshop celebrated its 25th birthday last week with a roaring party at Ponsonby Central, it sent a clear message to the publishing world - Kiwi independent bookstores have reason to celebrate.
The doom and gloom You've Got Mail narrative where the Tom Hanks character's big multinational bookstore chain (a clumsily-masked Borders) swoops in and steals the business from the family bookstore run by cutesy Meg Ryan is as out of date as Ryan's foppish 1998 hairdo.
Borders might have closed its doors in New Zealand but these days overseas online giants such as Amazon and Book Depository are biting at the independents' sales. Although the New Zealand book industry on a whole saw a 15 per cent drop last year, independent stores such as Unity Books in Wellington and Auckland, Ponsonby Rd's Women's Bookshop and Timeout in Mt Eden all reported good Christmas periods last year and promising growth in 2014.
"Almost the entire book trade was at our party. It was a buoyant feeling in the room that the book trade is in good health, the independents in particular," Carole Beu, owner of the Women's Bookshop, said. "We had the best Christmas last year that we've had in 25 years and 2014 is going strong."
The growth is, in part, thanks to Eleanor Catton's Man Booker-winning The Luminaries - that sold 100,000 copies in New Zealand alone.
But Lincoln Gould of Booksellers New Zealand said the indie booksellers' recent success is following trends in the US that saw independent bookstores increase their sales by 9 per cent in 2013.
The biggest obstacle locally is that overseas online purchases, such as books, under the value of $400 are currently GST exempt. Booksellers New Zealand has been lobbying the government to have the rule changed.
"That's a 15 per cent challenge to every bookshop before they open their doors," Gould said.
The Women's Bookshop, Timeout and Unity Books are each tackling the challenge from these giant online retailers by selling books locally through their own separate web stores. They've also responding to demand for e-books by selling Kobo readers and taking a share of the profits from e-books sales that are driven through their own online stores to Kobo.
Approximately 10 per cent of sales at the Women's Bookshop come from its online store and customers seem undeterred that its prices aren't as competitive as Amazon.
"People are politically aware and many think that to support [tax exempt] Amazon is an unethical act. We can often get our books out to customers faster on a courier," Beu said.
On the shopfloor, small retailers mark their difference by employing avid readers who can share their book knowledge to customers. Timeout's manager Jenna Todd adds that holding events and opening their doors to bookclubs add to sales.
"Our customers come in and say, ‘Jenna I loved that book you recommended to me last time, what's the next book I should read?' It's about making it a really personal experience," Todd said.
In January, Todd was awarded a scholarship by Booksellers New Zealand and Kobo to attend the American Bookseller's Winter Institute. As part of her prize, Todd attended a conference and spent a week working in a Seattle bookstore where she became aware of US small retailers following the localism movement.
"In the US there's so much enthusiasm about shopping locally. People really want to spend money in their community," said Todd.
"One of the things I have focused on since I got back is emphasising our ‘localness'.
"Our paper bags have been reprinted and they say: ‘Here's what you just did' and it lists 10 points on the bag about how they have supported the local community."
Todd now sells colourful socks behind the counter at Timeout, a "weird" trend she noticed in US bookstores that's caught on in her store this year.
In another way she and the other Kiwi independent book stores are "socking it" to the big guys is by banding together as an industry.
The decision to use Kobo as New Zealand's standard e-book supplier was decided by the independent bookstores as a group to create industry consistency when many e-reader platforms are available. The industry works together to support each other on a day-to-day basis.
One of the best examples of independent stores putting on a united front is the upcoming Auckland Readers and Writers Festival in May. Unity Books and the Women's Bookshop have for the past 10 years shared the task of supplying the books of the authors featured in the festival.
"It's a huge logistical exercise and it's too much work for one bookshop but it's a marvellous example of two competitors working together," Beu said.
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- Sunday Star Times
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