“The cities are dead,” said Robbie Egan, chairman of the Australian Booksellers Association, “and that was brutal.”
For bookstores, the experience of the pandemic depends on their location: those flourished in regional cities, while those in the business districts of our sealed-off cities were “decimated”, as one bookseller put it at the end of last year.
A love of independent bookstores is a defining feature of Australian book culture. Bookstores face many threats of the 21st century.
While the number of independent bookstores in the UK fell sharply in the early 2000s, Australian independent bookstores have shown resilience. In 2020, Australia had about 25% more independent bookstores than chains like Dymocks and Collins.
When they closed for lockdown in 2020, bookstores lost their edge over their online counterparts. Suddenly, customers could no longer browse and found it more difficult to chat with a well-read saleswoman. However, as we had more time, book purchases increased. However, independent bookstores relied on click-and-collect or home delivery and struggled to compete with Amazon and its Australian counterpart Booktopia, whose sales skyrocketed.
Covid-19 restrictions also prevented activities that normally aid sales by introducing books to readers, including literary festivals and writers-in-school events.
We asked 18 independent booksellers in five states about their experiences with the pandemic and their customers. It became clear that Australians love their independent bookstores for five main reasons:
1. Selection of curated books
Our research with teenage readers found that despite a plethora of online recommendations, many struggle to find a good book. Readers often look for novelty, but algorithms that determine online recommendations struggle to accommodate new titles and authors.
Independent booksellers carry books based on their knowledge of local readers and their own love of quality books, rather than relying on sales trends. Our interview partners described that it is fun to “find the little niche books” that inspire individual customers.
Typically 50% of customers walk into a bookstore “without a book in mind,” Egan said, but they wanted to browse. When customers lost this ability during the lockdown, one bookseller reported that every sale their bookstore made was based on a personal recommendation.
2. Commitment to local
Through lockdowns, people valued and wanted to support their local communities, and independent booksellers returned that commitment.
According to one interviewee, in order to know which books you should have in stock and recommend to your customers, you have to know what the customer is like “as a person” and what would inspire them.
Some booksellers take pride in meeting customers for the first time as a baby and looking after them for a lifetime: “Our strategy is that we work with the [young] Customers we have ”.
3. Local authors
Readers’ appreciation for local writers and stories has also grown. Eight of the top ten best-selling titles in 2020 were by Australian authors.
Australian publishers rely on independent booksellers to connect local writers with readers. Many sales are “hyper-local”: The F-Team by Punchbowl author Rawah Arja caused a stir at Lost in Books in the neighboring suburb of Fairfield, while Hannah Moloneys The good life is loved by customers at Fullers Bookstore in Hobart.
4. ‘Slow free time’
Both browsing the bookstore and reading are forms of slow leisure – activities that get rich because we invest time in them. One of the best things independent bookstores do for their customers is to create a calm, inviting atmosphere to browse without the pressure to buy.
During the lockdown, sales for ABC’s Bluey titles boomed as families looked for ways for their children to spend their days, outside of childcare and schools, and off-screen.
5. Outlets for emotions
Books offer the opportunity to experience different types of emotions on behalf of others. Consulting booksellers will help readers find the books that will allow them to access these emotions.
For example, in 2020 Australians channeled their anger at racist police violence by consuming books on race and racism.
In our quiet, closed life, we now miss the full range of emotions: we may experience fear or frustration, but we lack joy and excitement. Booksellers recommend books not only according to their genre or previous reading, but also according to their mood. Lately this has often meant “easy reading” to find.
Covid-19 is an exceptionally disruptive factor in the book industry, but it’s not all bad news. The pandemic has helped readers see clearly what we love about our bookstores.
Katya Johanson is a professor of audience research and Bronwyn Reddan is a research fellow at Deakin University. Leonie Rutherford is an associate professor at the same institute.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.