The Future of Literature 2: Indie Bookshops, 8 September 2013, Fugard Annexe 2. Audrey Rademeyer, Mervyn Sloman and Kerry-Leigh Snel in conversation with Kamila Shamsie.
There are several things an independent bookshop like The Book Lounge, Kalk Bay Books and Book Boutique in Kwazulu Natal are not, it was established at a panel discussion at this year’s Open Book Festival. They are not a chain store, and fulfil a different function; they are not a place selling e-books, nor are they a place selling secondhand books, which requires a completely different kind of expertise. To complicate things further, “a bookshop is more than a place within which to sell books,” host Kamila Shamsie quoted Book Lounge owner Mervyn Sloman as saying.
So when Shamsie asked her panel what they felt an indie bookshop was, they agreed that it is most importantly a cultural space, where people have the opportunity to discuss and debate current issues using books as their starting point; a role-player in a reading community; and a comfortable haven for patrons to pass the time, coffee in hand, without being harassed into buying anything – but with personalised reading (and hopefully buying) advice never too far away. In her opening remarks, Shamsie reminded us of the importance for authors of having a personal relationship with their stockists: they are the ones who have your back, who will bring your book to the attention of readers at a grassroots level – and with more new books on the shelves each year, this is certainly something to cling to with gratitude. Sloman added that one of the most important things the Book Lounge contributes is the events it hosts, ranging from book launches and panel discussions to live readings for children on Saturday mornings. “We form wonderful relationships with local authors, who in turn take ownership of their reading communities,” he said.
The apex of the Book Lounge’s events calendar is the Open Book festival itself, which seems to be growing from strength to strength. But as Sloman reminded us, running such a festival is not as easy as it looks. It’s not that the Book Lounge is not doing alright for itself – it’s just that anything to do with publishing and print, in South Africa as in the rest of the world, is a cold and gruelling business, despite the romance with which independent bookshops are associated. Independent bookshops have to compete not only with the turn to digital, but also with large chains (Exclusive Books) and international multibillion monstrosities (Amazon.com) covering the globe like a blanket. How can an independent bookstore compete with the likes of Exclusive Books, asked Shamsie – if, indeed, it should? “They are very different beasts,” said Sloman, “and in a way thank goodness for them. They allow our warehouses to exist.”
“If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t be able to look so cute and special,” said Kerry-Leigh Snel of Book Boutique. People are attracted to her shop, she explained, because it is a “destination” bookstore, being between cities in Amanzimtoti. “It’s very pretty and on its own property, and I think half of its success is due to the coffee shop,” said Snel.
Independent bookshops should not try to do what chains can do better, and should focus, instead, on their strengths: forming relationships and building communities. This was re-emphasised by Sloman when the discussion turned to the impending dominance of e-readers. “I was convinced we would be selling e-books in-store within three to four months of opening shop,” he said. Infrastructurally, this would require a touch screen of sorts. “It’s not rocket science,” he said. The Book Lounge is now in its sixth year, and is still not selling e-books. “I went through a complete turn in my attitude; I quickly realised that we should be focussing on what we do well, and let the rest worry about the rest,” he said.
Digital retailers and chain stores will never be able to do what independent bookshops do, was the consensus. Just as people seek out an indie bookshop for its old-fashioned cosiness and human-to-human personalised service, they associate these shops with the “heft and feel” of real books, presented in a showroom – something which is lacking in the wild west of the internet, as Shamsie pointed out. As long as people seek that particular reading and browsing experience, e-readers will never fully take over.
Furthermore, the shift to digital is particularly slow in South Africa (and slower than one might think in the States and in Europe, as Sloman pointed out). “I don’t see us in a place where the majority of books sold are post-digital any time soon.”
“What I see happening,” commented Rademeyer of Kalk Bay Books, “is that people will shift their periodicals and ‘beach reads’ – stuff you wouldn’t keep – over to e-readers, but there are a bunch of books you want to keep with you until you die, and that’s where we come in.”