By the time I arrived back in Johannesburg at the end of January, the local literary community was in mourning: Boekehuis, owned by Media24 and run for 12 years by Corina van der Spoel, was closing its well-worn doors.
The bookshop as we know it was careening off the rails to some uncertain future. But exposing the elephant in the bookshop didn’t seem polite. So I stewed in my anxiety for a few more months until I had to come out with it.
Love Books is a bright spot in Melville, with coloured ribbons tied to a tree branch suspended from the exposed ceiling. There are antique wooden chairs and low wooden side tables. It is part library, part lounge, a small, rectangular space with carefully selected books that are thoughtfully displayed. It’s the sort of place that makes you feel that owning a bookshop has got to be the greatest adventure ever.
Kate Rogan, the shop’s owner, met me on a Monday at 8am wearing jeans and weepy crystal-blue eyes. I suddenly felt terrible for being so forthright in my email. I had written to her to say I wanted to talk about the death of the bookstore. I unleashed my fear on Rogan and, now that I had, we sat in earnest discussion about the state of things.
“Almost everyone in publishing advised me against opening,” said Rogan, who was Jenny Crwys-Williams’s producer for her Talk Radio 702 book show from 2004 to 2009, before opening Love Books later that year. “The day I signed the lease, the headline was screaming recession. There wasn’t an iPad when I opened. The digital threat seemed so far off, so unimaginable.”
By mid-2010, things started to snowball. Amazon’s Kindle, introduced in 2007, had ramped up, and the iPad had hit the market. In 2011, the American chain Border’s declared bankruptcy and closed more than 1 300 stores. The global publishing industry looked on in trepidation.
Rogan told me she watches her customers come in and “look at stuff and weigh it up, figure out what they will buy, what they will download”. She wondered aloud about having digital access in the shop, how that might work, and then looked off into the distance and said she thought she might need more stationery.
“I think we can survive the next 10 years,” Rogan said. But really, who knows what the future will hold?
Later that week, I went to see Alexandra Fuller speak at Love Books. A stack of her latest book, Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness, was on the large circular table.
There were 40 or 50 people, mostly middle-aged white women, with wine and hors d’oeuvres served outside as dusk fell, jazz pouring out of the speakers.
As I waited for Fuller to begin her talk, I ran my hands over the books. I discovered The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco next to Bret Easton Ellis’s Imperial Bedrooms. I was led from Don DeLillo’s White Noise to another old favourite, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. I wondered what it would be like to read TC Boyles’s When the Killing’s Done. I made a note to read the latest Cormac McCarthy and to buy Emma Donoghue’s Room in hard copy, a book I had already read on my iPad. I went over the classics, reviewed some Steinbeck and realised I had never actually read Dracula and wondered if I needed to. Did I really need to read In Cold Blood again?
Then I considered all the books at home I still had not read. I thought of the 15 near my bedside (“the book pool” Rogan had called it earlier in the week) and what was on the Kindle, unread (Kingsolver’s Lacuna), and on the iPad, Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid. Where to start? When to finish?
Fuller, her hair cropped, a glass of white wine nearby, a microphone in her hand, played with a turquoise ring. It felt like she was speaking to us in her living room. “Each book in a way kills you,” she told us. “You put words on a page for a reader to love or hate — and they are no longer yours.”
I wanted to read that night but I was halfway through EM Forster’s A Room with a View, which I had downloaded for free onto my iPad, and its battery was flat. I turned off the light, thinking back to the time when the internet was this thing without a search engine that you could only code with HTML, black screen blinking green, no email yet, not for a few more years. My editor then, at a Los Angeles city magazine, was intrigued. He was sure this thing would replace everything on paper, would change the publishing game, and that the change was just around the corner. It was 1994.
Van der Spoel agreed to meet me on a Thursday in May at the Seattle Coffee Company next to the Exclusive Books flagship store in Hyde Park. As I waited for her to arrive, I lingered inside.
The “Homebru” selection was on the display table at the front — Imraan Coovadia’s The Institute for Taxi Poetry, Karen Dudley’s The Kitchen, Frank Chikane’s Eight Days in September, Nadine Gordimer’s latest. Also front and centre was a table with a few copies of the much-loved children’s book The Gruffalo and piles of stuffed Gruffalos, Gruffalo board games and a Gruffalo breakfast set. There were stands of Moleskine bags and notebooks and a rack of stationery and book lights. There was wrapping paper, mugs, electronic dictionary bookmarks, Little Prince flatware, neoprene wine bags, Peter Rabbit plates and Maisy Mouse lunchboxes.
We sat just outside the bookstore so we could get a view of our subject.
“I just think it is not about books anymore,” Van der Spoel lamented. “Like anything else, it is about that which we can make money on. There are more and more titles, and shorter runs. The market is hungry. It’s part of why they have fast moveables.”
Boekehuis didn’t have any fast moveables.
“The shop was unashamedly a bookshop. And it was intelligent. I didn’t have non-book products. In the end, what’s really sad is that the only city in Southern Africa that could sustain a shop like Boekehuis actually couldn’t sustain it.”
The independent bookshop formula seemed to be intact. She had 7 000 people on her mailing list, held a constant stream of events, had a know-ledgeable staff and carefully curated her book selection.
“This is not just about Boekehuis closing, there is a sea change, a perfect storm in the book industry. Business has been declining since 2008. It used to be there were just piles of books here,” she said, nodding towards the Exclusive Books. “Things are changing. They really are. It’s about fashion now. The Moleskine is the accoutrement.”
As if on cue, a few days later I received an email.
“Dear Tanya,” the note read. “The legend of LEGO® bricks joins the legendary notebook. The new limited edition hacks the classic Moleskine® notebook by embedding a LEGO® plate into the iconic black cover. This LEGO® limited edition is the latest in a series of limited editions that plays with pop icons of our times, including: Woodstock, Pac-Man, Petit Prince, and Star Wars. These amazing limited edition notebooks are now available from your local Exclusive Books!”
A few days later I phoned Ann Donald, the owner of Kalk Bay Books and former editor of Fair Lady magazine. I had heard about her nearly having to close shop recently, saved only by a last-minute agreement with her landlord.
I told her what I was writing about, almost apologetically. There was a sense of urgency in her pace of speech. She seemed breathless, and I got the sense that something very bad was about to happen.
“It’s been every night through winter months that I wake up in a cold sweat,” she said.
“I’m watching the turnover day by day and hoping to still be there at end of month.”
For four-and-a-half of the past five years that she has been open, Kalk Bay has been undergoing major roadworks. She can’t pinpoint what it is that has placed her on the brink: the economy, the roadworks or the state of the industry.
Early this year she and her husband decided that, before it got to a point where they couldn’t control the situation, they would close in a manageable way. They had meetings with staff and suppliers and told the landlord their plans. Five days later, the landlord came back to say he didn’t want the shop to close and agreed to an arrangement that would make the rent more manageable in winter.
“We still are in a tentative situation. It will all depend on next season. I want to be able to break even, cover the costs and stock the shop. If I make any money, that would be great. Just the thought of closing … I don’t want to think about it … but if we don’t sell books, we can’t stay open.”
Despite her late-night worries, she told me the only time she has been angry was when the Amazon app came out — the one that could scan barcodes so book buyers could go to their local shop to browse and then send their purchase order along to Amazon. “I will do nothing to promote Amazon,” she said. “I don’t care if every bookstore in the world closes down; I won’t buy a book from them. They want it all.”
She’s not the only Amazon-hater. Not by a long shot. Tim Waterstone, founder of the British chain Waterstones, wrote in the Guardian in April about Amazonian tactics. “It’s all so simple,” he spat. “Make and build your brand on a reputation for absolutely rock-bottom pricing. Do this single-mindedly and ruthlessly. Even say it upfront, insultingly and aggressively, in your advertising — go Mr Consumer, go to Harrods or wherever it is, inspect and admire the goods, then come home and buy them from us. Online. At a deep, deep discount. And fuck Harrods or whoever it is for their trouble.”
Before we got off the phone, Donald told me about a trip to New York when she was still editor of Fair Lady, a visit that should have had her soaking up the upmarket fashion boutiques. But it was the bookstores where she felt at home.
“There is a sense that these bookstores will always be there. That’s not true. Bookshops are closing everywhere — from London to New York, they are closing every day.”
After talking to Donald, I went to the Google News site and typed in: bookstore closure. Page one of the 7 040 search results included a press release about a fundraising drive to reinvent Kepler’s, the much-loved community bookstore in Silicon Valley which opened in 1956 and was on the brink of closure until some heavy tech hitters pitched up with some cash to save them; another American bookstore, after 30 years in business, was also going nonprofit and was also holding a fundraiser; and a university bookstore was set to close one of its floors because students were ordering their texts on their e-readers, or from Amazon so much cheaper.
‘The death of the bookstore is bullshit,” Mervyn Sloman, the owner of the Book Lounge in Cape Town told me over the phone. He was clearly irritated by my presumption. “I own a bookshop and we’re not dying.”
Sloman opened at the end of 2007, not long before the global recession hit. While he admitted the industry was in flux and that last year was a bit rough, he said this year was looking up. “Part of it is about — and how to say this without sounding like an asshole — you have to take responsibility for what you are doing. If anybody thinks they can find a space, fill it with books and wait for people to stream in they are not going to last two weeks. But if you are prepared to work bloody hard and be creative and innovative, then it is completely doable.”
Sloman, who also puts on the Open Book Festival, is a glass-half-full type of guy. Rather than focusing on “the chorus that e-books are going to kill us”, he said the past five years have been a boon for the local publishing industry.
“There are so many good books being published. It’s a wonderful time to be a part of the book trade. If I have a concern, not about digital, it’s about the gadgets — the smart phones, the tablets. We have the ability to be online constantly and constantly connected. It eats into reading time, and for younger people it encourages a different way of being, which is about instant engagements, small bite-sized consumption of things, instant gratification.”
For the next generation, digital is where it’s at and to assume that they will feel our nostalgia for the printed thing is probably just wishful thinking. Or is it? Are there e-book people and non-e-book people and, unknowingly, like the crass consumerism leading us into a world without an ozone layer or rainforests, are the e-book people ending the bookstore as we know it? Worse, had I become an e-book person?
Suddenly I felt the need to buy a book. In a store. The kind of bookstore that Ann Donald talked about; the Strand Bookstore in New York, the Globe Bookstore & Café in Prague, San Francisco’s City Lights. The sort of bookstores that can make you well up with tears: so many books to read, so much knowledge to take in and not enough time to do it.
My mother brought me a Kindle for Christmas in 2007. But I did not download anything for months. It wasn’t until I had some research to do, and the books I needed would have had to come from overseas, that I used it. I got my information instantly, at a fraction of the price. They weren’t keepers, those books, but if for some reason I did need them, I would have them on that thing that sits in a plastic pouch, usually uncharged, at my bedside. When I got my iPad, though, I was immediately hooked. This thing made digital publishing something I could love.
Ben Williams is the founder of Book SA, a website with a mission to promote South African books to South Africans. Last year Avusa bought him out and changed the name of the site to Books Live, and appointed Williams general manager of digital retail for Exclusive Books.
We met at the Slow Lounge in Sandton. He wore a grey Paul Smith suit and wire-framed glasses, and sat in one of the glass booths with paisley walls simultaneously logging on to his MacBook Air, his iPad, his Kindle Fire, his Android phone and his BlackBerry. “I live at the crossroads of publishing and digital so I have all the toys,” Williams said.
He showed me Exclusive Books’s redeveloped website with “stickers”, a new technology using “social bookselling” and “retail gameificiation”, where users earn smiley faces, and ultimately discounts, by rating and sharing books. Williams, who has both a BA and a master’s in English literature, is unabashed about our digital future.
“I get so annoyed with people who tell me they love the smell of a book,” he said. “Get over it. You don’t smell the book when you are reading. And for those who tell me they can’t take an e-reader into the bath? Please. Put it into a Ziploc bag.”
Chains like Exclusive Books will have to shift their model, he said, branch out on product offerings. “It’s like the pharmacy. They used to just sell medicine. Somewhere along the line they started selling kitchenware. We might be selling steak knives in the window.”
But about the devastation wrought by Amazon he’s not so glib. “There is no way to dictate to the digital revolution. It’s the interregnum — you know that period when one king dies and another is coming to the throne? It’s almost over and Amazon has almost won the game.”
His advice? “If you are a publisher or a bookseller or a revolutionary lover of bookstores, take your Kindle into the bath and drown it.”
On May 29, The Nation ran a piece by Steve Wasserman, editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. He reeled off dizzying statistics: there were about 4 000 independent bookstores in the United States 20 years ago; less than half remain. About 2% of Americans had an e-reader or tablet three years ago, and by January this year the number had swelled to 28%. In 2011, he wrote, e-book sales for most publishers made up between 18% and 22% of total sales.
I read his 10 000-word piece on my phone, my eyes tearing up from the strain as much as from the information. Then, just as I was putting another nail in the bookstore coffin, I ran across a piece that quoted Dan Cullen from the Association of American Booksellers saying that they were actually seeing an uptick in independent bookstores, partly because of the closure of Border’s. Maybe it’s not the death of the bookstore but rather a rise in the niche, in the independent, the hand-curated, some convergence of old and new, and something we can’t quite see just yet.
Last Friday I went to Love Books. They were having a sale. I picked up Steinbeck’s The Pearl and Kafka’s The Trial and a fairy book for my daughter. Rogan had a chocolate cake on one table, decorated with paper figurines of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. It was the shop’s third birthday. Here’s to many, many more.