The end of a shelf life

Independent bookshops are struggling in the face of chainstore and online competition, writes Sorcha Hamilton

Independent bookshops are struggling in the face of chainstore and online competition, writes Sorcha Hamilton

Does it matter where you buy a book? These days you can get them anywhere - petrol stations, vending machines, supermarkets, not to mention the numerous chains or online offerings. But does it make any difference where we choose to buy the latest Harry Potter or Seamus Heaney's District and Circle?

While large chains have long dominated the market, attracting customers with two-for-three discounts, toys to keep the children happy, or coffee and muffins, online services are increasingly changing our shopping patterns. Independent bookshops, however, tell a different story entirely.

There are 167 independent bookshops in Ireland, but few - if any - will tell you it's not a struggle. Like the corner shop, the trend over the past few years has been one of decline, an exception being the return of Dublin's Winding Stair.


Four independent outlets closed last year, including the famous Kenny's Bookshop of Galway, while this month Anthology Books announced its closure after three years in Temple Bar. Up against rising rents, intensified competition from chains, supermarkets and an online industry which now accounts for 9-12 per cent of all book sales, the charm and intimacy of independent bookshops may soon be a thing of the past.

"It's very sad it's ending," says Susan O'Brien of Anthology Books, which will close at the end of this month. The shop, on the corner of Meeting House Square in Temple Bar, has a cosy atmosphere and offers a select range of Irish and other literature as well as art and political magazines. When they made less in their third year than their second, O'Brien and her partner Cecilia O'Doherty began to worry. "When it boils down to it, it just wasn't financially feasible," says O'Brien.

Like other independent bookshops, Anthology Books struggled to compete on the price level. "You don't get the same discounts from wholesalers that the larger chains do," O'Brien says. What they do offer, she believes,is a more personal service. "We do a lot of special ordering or we try to find hard-to-find or out-of-print books. When people come in we can introduce them to an author or help them look for something they hadn't thought of - it's more intimate." The re-opened Winding Stair bookshop, which sells new and second-hand titles, also aims to attract customers with a more personal service.

"When customers come in here asking for a book we don't turn to the computer, we go to the shelves, we recommend titles," says manager Regan Hutchins. The shop has a retro, boutique style atmosphere, or what Hutchins describes as "shabby chic". People are more willing to pay for something different, Hutchins believes, whether it's insider tips on good reads or a bit of "old charm".

Expanding into niche or specialist areas has also been key to surviving in an increasingly aggressive book market. Cathach Books on Duke Street, Dublin, for example, has offers rare books and first editions, and Murder Ink on Dawson Street specialises in mystery literature. Others such as Greene's Bookshop or Books Upstairs, also in Dublin, offer a special range of Irish titles among other books. Many independents seek to offer the kind of expertise often lacking at the larger chains - when a customer recently phoned a large Irish chain asking for a copy of Ulysses, she was asked for the author's name.

"Some time in the future we're all going to scratch our heads and wonder where did all the independent retailers go," says John McNamee, president of the European Booksellers' Federation. McNamee, who runs Laois Educational Books, expects a significant numbers of independent bookshops will close in Ireland by 2010. "The pattern is widespread throughout Europe, too," he adds. In Britain last year the number of independent shops was down by 6 per cent.

Discounting is one of the key problems for independents. The collapse of the Net Book Agreement in 1995 allowed retailers to sell books below cover price for the first time, and was followed by price battles and greater competition from supermarkets.

"Supermarkets can sell the Guinness Book of Records, for example, cheaper than we're buying it,," says McNamee. "Supermarkets bring the price point down and tend to dictate the price point for the rest of us." Supermarkets also pose a threat to the larger book chains: "Competition is not each other anymore but the supermarkets, the internet and people spending on other things," says Tom Owens, book director of Eason's wholesalers.

Maurice Earls has been running Books Upstairs on Dublin's College Green since 1978. His approach is slightly different to other independents. "Our policy is to sell books at a discount. We offer a discount on all newly published titles across the range of our specialisations. We can afford to do it because don't have to please shareholders, we're committed to it, and we're content with a modest return. It's true the chains will be able to buy cheaper, but that's a disadvantage we have to live with."

Rising rent, Earls believes, is the main obstacle for independent retailers. "The way in which we organise rents has unquestionably led to a reduction in retail diversity," he says. "Rents go up every five years . . . if a convenience store pays higher rent other traders nearby have to match that rent every time an increase comes by."

While independent retailers are "one bad rent review from obliteration", it is common for large chains to get generous inducements from landlords to attract them into shopping centres or high streets. Nevertheless, Earls is hopeful Books Upstairs will still be open in 10 years' time.

Other independent bookshops are looking online for solutions.Anthology Books will follow in the footsteps of Kenny's by switching to a primarily online service after it closes. Kenny's has had an internet presence since 1993 and says its profits are healthy since closing its shop in Galway.

"We provide a highly personalised book club," says Des Kenny, who sends recommended titles to club members in Ireland and all over the world. "Online services appeal to people who are busy, abroad, or if the idea of driving in through the gridlock or queuing at a till doesn't appeal."

While scrolling through titles on a web page is a far remove from browsing through shelves, internet services can offer additional information such as reviews, ratings or related reads that you won't find in bookshops, Kenny believes. "The website is like a shop window: it needs to have the wow factor, and you've got to keep moving and changing it," he says.

However, McNamee is wary of the tough competition online. "You're just not going to come anywhere near the Amazon service," he says. While larger book chains are also struggling with competition from online sales, McNamee believes the arrival of digital books and e-readers is also set to shake up the sector.

As O'Brien prepares for the last few days at Anthology Books, she is critical of the Booksellers Association of UK and Ireland. "They should offer more to the independent bookshops . . . like getting rates at group prices, offering a mentor service or just looking out a bit more for the smaller operators."

McNamee is a council member of the Irish branch of the association: "I would love to be able to devise way to protect independent booksellers," he says. "But there is nothing in EU trading standards that will allow for protection of independent booksellers - and here the Competition Authority doesn't allow collective bargaining. We can't be seen to be controlling price." While the future remains increasingly precarious for independent bookshops, the return of the Winding Stair offers a glimmer of hope.

And for those who find online shopping impersonal, or get lost in the big chains, the homely atmosphere of independent bookshops is still the best place to find a good read. "I'd hate to think it's over for independent bookshops," says O'Brien. "Maybe some day we'll be able to open again. "

Sorcha Hamilton

Sorcha Hamilton

Sorcha Hamilton is an Irish Times journalist