Bookstores vs. online shopping

20:18, Jan 10 2013

I was browsing at an independent bookstore in central Auckland the other day, when I noticed the sign by the door. I can't remember the exact wording, but it essentially said, in a rather stern, schoolmarmish tone, that as the titles in the shop had been chosen with care, customers should refrain from comparison with shopping online just to get cheaper prices. It's a sentiment that I don't necessarily agree with entirely, but that I can sympathise with to a degree.

Of course, the owner could just apply some old-fashioned ingenuity and decide to make her bookstore so awesome, her customer service so irresistible, that most dedicated readers will plonk down their credit cards right there and then, but that's neither here nor there. 

I am of two minds about the tussle between going into a physical bookstore or buying online. On the one hand, I'm a rather old-fashioned bibliophile. I like being able to touch physical copies of books, run my finger over the spine, check for creases, open to a random page to see if an interesting passage catches my eye. I've chosen many good books this way, through some sort of literary sixth sense enhanced by the ability to touch.

Buying books online is, in some ways, an inferior experience. You lose the magic of picking a book by the cover, or spending whole hours of rainy days wandering lost and thoughtful in a bookstore, stopping for a bite to eat and a coffee (oh Borders, how I miss thee), before continuing your aimless search.

Of course, you can browse through categories in websites like Amazon, and there are even recommended lists, but I think dedicated book nerds will agree that it's just not quite the same.

There are negatives to physical bookstores. For one thing, it's the dreaded economics of it. I don't subscribe to the belief that money makes the world go round. A simplistic philosophy and one which doesn't make sense...I mean, I suppose you could theoretically buy things that make you happy and in that sense, yes, enough money can get you piles of crap that contribute to overall happiness, but you can't stop death and you definitely can't buy love - not the real "can't live without you, would do anything to make it work" passion, at least.


However, to keep a bookstore going is expensive work. The overheads are massive. There's rent for the shop site, capital to buy books, bills like power and water, decoration and staff to keep the entire operation going. The costs are inevitably passed down to the consumer, which means that you're always going to find that books are more expensive than buying online.

That's why websites like Fishpond and Book Depository, which have little in the way of overheads apart from bare bones staffing and warehousing, can sell books for half the price or less than you'll find in the shops. Which, if you know what you're looking for and don't mind the waiting time, is probably the sensible way to go in terms of cost.

But I am not entirely pessimistic about the future of bookstores. Like paper books, which many people predict are on the way out, I think there will always be an appetite for good bookstores, with knowledgeable, well-read, enthusiastic staff - just as there will always be a market for hardcovers and paperbacks, no matter how niche. At least in my lifetime.

Being in a bookstore is about savouring the experience and indulging the senses. It's the ability to feel that you are part of the reading community, knowing that every other shopper is there for the same reason as you, because they love and enjoy books.

How do you feel about bookstores vs online shopping?

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