Wednesday, May 16, 2018

A Completely Subjective and Judgmental Opinion on South African Bookstores

I have been debating about this post for a few weeks and I decided that, reactions be damned, I have thoughts to get off my chest.

As a disclaimer, the following points are based purely on observation and my own feelings on the matter. I do not want anyone going into this thinking it is well-researched facts. I have limited retail experience and am simply taking this from the perspective of both a customer and book enthusiast. If you disagree with anything I say, please let me know with a comment and we can get the conversation going.

In my younger and more vulnerable years (yes, I am quoting from The Great Gatsby, you clever bookworm, you), I used to work for Look & Listen, a music store known for having a great selection of genres and knowledge staff. Their offerings extended to DVD's, gaming and the like, but the heart of each store was its music. Their slogan was "for the fans" and I believe, for a time, it really was.

I remember, prior to my employment there, spending hours upon hours finding hidden gems, obscure albums and sitting at one of their listening booths, discovering new music that made me feel things. So it was, in many ways, a dream job for me. I got to chat to people about music, sort through new stock and and expand upon my music knowledge. I am not a one trick pony, you know. It's not just about the books in my head.

But, the digital age loomed over traditional music stores, with customers opting to go online and get iPods. The CD was slowly becoming obsolete and this began to hurt stores like Look and Listen. So, the franchise went into survival mode. They began to look for other avenues of revenue to keep their stores alive and bring feet through the door.

Trinkets like gift bags, branded fan items like keyrings, socks and the like started to dilute the merchandise on offer. CD sales continued to plummet and stock levels dropped with the demand. Not even Look and Listen's famous 3 for R99 sales could help them. And people didn't give a damn about the trinkets. They had specialist stores like Cardies for that sort of thing.

Look and Listen lost their identity and their entire reason for being. No amount of innovation was going to stop the inevitable closure of stores and subsequently the whole franchise. And it is sad and makes my nostalgic heart sore.

Gone are the days of browsing CD racks and jamming to the latest album from a favorite artist. The era of Empire Records has passed and this generation of teenagers will never experience the joy of visiting a music store that offers that unique experience. Now, they will be streaming Taylor Swift's latest on YouTube or Spotify, in what is essentially a solitary experience from the comfort of home.

I do have a point for you, bookstores. I feel there is a lot of learning that can be done from looking at traditional music stores as an example.

The digital age has impacted the book industry, too. It's just been a slower process probably in part due to the tangibility of books. I could get into the ebook versus paperback debate, but this is not the place for that.

I have seen in some local bookstores that they have also began the dilution process. Bringing in boardgames, trinkets and odd gifty things displayed prominently at till points. Mugs with names, pens and more. Bookstores, I am sure you mean well, but this is going to kill your revenue more that it will help. Fancy chairs and coffee are not why you are here.

I do have some ideas, though. Things which I feel are especially lacking in this country as well.

  1. Educate your staff on not just bestsellers, but also lesser known titles. Carry stock of some of those titles.
  2. Don't just buy off publishers' new release lists. See what else is out there. Rather carry less stock of new trade paperback titles, saving your risk of having to flog these off later with sales.
  3. If book 5 is coming out in a series, make sure you carry stock of books 1-4.
  4. Take advantage of your staff's knowledge and have a staff recommendations shelf unique to your store. If Frankie is a Sci-Fi buff, ask him what's good and get a few copies in your store for Frankie to sell.
  5. Stop buying trinket crap. It's a waste of money and no one actually wants it. I promise.
  6. Stock local authors. Put them in a prominent spot in your store. Lower your profit margins on these titles a little to get them into the hands of the people the books were written for.
  7. Use the power of the human element of physical stores. Make sure every customer has a good experience and feels welcome to hang around and browse. 
In short, bookstores need to continue to sell books and sell them well. Remain specialists of the trade and make sure each customer feels taken care of. Keep your shelves full of interesting titles and not just ones that are on current bestseller lists.

Your buyers need to know their stuff and stock your store according to the customer tastes of your area. The buyer has to interface with visitors too and find out what they are reading and what they want but cannot find. 

Book people love talking about books to other book people. Your staff are key in this interaction. It does not take much to have a good general understanding of each genre and the prominent authors who are the figureheads for it. 

I would hate for bookstores as we know them to become yet another nostalgic memory that the online experience cannot replicate. It loses the personal touch that books and reading should be embracing.

A book is expensive these days and people will be more willing to part with their money if they continue to have good experiences with bookstores. If visiting the store and dealing with the staff makes them leave with a smile, then that is a job well done. 

If you are reading this, please leave a comment below on what bookstores mean to you. Why do you visit your local bookstore over buying from an online store? Or have you made the move to purely shopping online for your physical books? Let me know! 


  1. 1, 3 and 6 are things about bookstores that annoy me the most.

  2. Reading this just before walking into a meeting with one of SA's big booksellers. I'd say there's hope for the industry. The physical book won't die out. There are people in the industry who are working on it. But the market is tough...