Federal Politics

Bookshops about more than just purchasing

The irony of this age of the digital economy must be a phrase pinned to a closed shop announcing: Exciting retailer coming soon.

In the past six months the Australian retailing world has taken a pasting. Peer into a departmental store, fashion boutiques and youll see bored shop assistants keeping busy.

You might call it a retail recession but it isn't really; Savvy consumers are still buying, but online. In the past few months two book chains have fallen by the wayside. Their premises will be replaced either by an eatery or cafe. Chomp, chomp! Slurp, Slurp. You can't buy your next flat white online. No, but they're working on it.

In the past two months, Canberra's reputation as a city of bookshops has taken a hammering with the closure of the Angus & Robertson chain and Borders. The latter has been no more than a decade. Apart from the employee's who lost their jobs there has been no great regret at their passing. Is that how it is?

Former Treasury secretary Ken Henry once drolly said hundreds of jobs are destroyed and created every day. Even Joe Schumpeter, the economist who told us about the economic and entrepreneurial forces that made for creative destruction had pangs of regret about the loss of the old forms of business life. Some bookshops still remain but have seen no spike in sales since the closure of two major book chains.

A soaring dollar and the impetus it gives to online purchasing means that they live a penurious life. It was only a few years ago people were being enticed to use their super and invest in a bookshop franchise. There is something, though, about bookshops that we should value as pure heritage. Its the smell of print and paper, their quaintness and quietness, the joy of finding a new book as one browses the shelves and watching fellow bibliophiles.

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Stanley Baldwin, the former British prime minster got high sniffing books. Old volumes have that musty smell of history. A whole academic discipline makes it its business to trawl through the personal libraries of great economists and scrutinise any annotated comment on book margins.

Can one associate the disappearance of bookshops in a place as evidence of cultural despair? The worlds greatest economist certainly thought so. John Maynard Keynes once gave a radio address on his love affair with books and bookshops. The reader, Keynes advised, should approach books "with all his senses; he should know their touch and their smell. He should learn how to take them in his hands, rustle their pages and reach in a few seconds a first intuitive impression of what they contain. He should, in the course of time, have touched many thousands, at least 10 times as many as he really reads. He should cast an eye over books as a shepherd over sheep ... He should live with more books than he reads, with a penumbra of unread pages, of which he knows the general character and content, fluttering round him. This is the purpose of libraries ...

"It is also the purpose of good bookshops, both new and secondhand, of which there are still some, and would that there were more. A bookshop is not like a railway booking-office which one approaches knowing what one wants. One should enter it vaguely, almost in a dream, and allow what is there freely to attract and influence the eye.

"To walk the rounds of the bookshops, dipping in as curiosity dictates, should be an afternoons entertainment. Feel no shyness or compunction in taking it. Bookshops exist to provide it; and the booksellers welcome it, knowing how it will end."

What would Keynes make, I wonder, about the ebook, the Kobo reader and the electronic bookshelf? Today many bookshop owners have indeed a dread about how it will end but are fighting against the market trends and a prophecy by a cabinet minster that they will all be defunct within five years.

Canberra has too many literary festivals, and a great bank of intelligentsia, to let the local book trade simply curl up and die. Get out and support your local bookseller!

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