Local bookshops face huge struggle

The recent demise of Hughes & Hughes represents another blow to struggling independent booksellers in Ireland. As powerful online and supermarket retailers continue to demand larger discounts and higher margins from publishers, the outlook is grim for this once-vibrant industry. While this situation is far from unique to this country, it is particularly sad to see our rich and varied literary tradition homogenised and bastardised by the supermarket retailer, the celebrity hardback, and the Dan Brown novel. Once the land of Shaw, Beckett and Behan, Ireland risks becoming the land of Jordan, Chris Moyles and Richard Hammond. Moreover, the advent of the Amazon Kindle and the Sony e-reader casts the very future of the paper book itself into uncertainty.
What impact, then, have these recent developments had on those independent booksellers that continue to trade? Paddy MacNeill, owner of “The Skerries Bookshop” in north Co. Dublin, insists he is not worried by Hughes’ collapse: “My overheads are much lower than theirs were, so that means I can survive when they can’t. I’m just paying myself, I don’t have any staff.” When asked about the difference between the experience a consumer has in his shop as opposed to a retail giant, Paddy thinks his personal service, passion for literature and varied range of stock keep the customers coming through his door. “I offer a personal service here. I’ve a little bit of everything, bestsellers, Irish authors and local authors. I know the writers. I read a lot myself and I’m able to make recommendations to customers.”
However, not all share his optimism. Mark Kiernan, an employee of “The Wise Owl” chain of small retailers, said, “We would be worried to a certain extent about their closure, mainly because we’re never sure how publishers are going to react. If they raise their cost prices that would be extremely difficult for us in such a competitive market.” Neither are fans of the Kindle or the e-reader. Paddy doubts the Kindle will lead to the death of the conventional book: “Maybe with the bestsellers that might take off, but you never know how these things are going to pan out. There’s still a cost issue there because you have to buy the Kindle as well as the book.” For Mark, nothing compares to the experience of reading a paper book. “I know it sounds corny but I enjoy being able to hold the book and feel the pages. The Kindle is kind of cold and detached.”
Where, however, do customers fit in to all this? If consumers want to buy cheaper books in Tesco or from Amazon, surely that is their prerogative? For Karen Roberts, a customer of Paddy MacNeill, the most important thing is to continue to support local businesses. “I find that in smaller bookshops you do get more of a personal service. It’s convenient to have somewhere local where you can just pop in, the stock is just as up to date as anywhere else and if there’s something you want that they don’t have they can get it in that day or the next, so it’s just as handy.”
As a student, Ciarán McKenna admits that price is the most important factor for him when it comes to buying books. “Of course I’d love to buy from independents more often, but if I buy the books online there can be as much as a 50% difference in price. I’m on a budget so as far as I see it I don’t really have a choice.” This sentiment would seem to be echoed by book purchasers all over the globe. The independent bookshop retains great affection in the hearts of booklovers everywhere, but in the case of Hughes and many others, the price gap has proven to be a bridge too far.
The only people who can save these outlets are the customers. If consumers are serious about holding on to the independent bookshop experience, to the personal service, to varied stock, and to the knowledgeable and passionate staff, then they must put their money where their mouths are. The alternative is that work of genuine merit that refuses to pander to commercialism and the lowest common denominator will be swallowed whole by the likes of Dan Brown and Chris Moyles, and literary Ireland will be dead and gone.