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The Real Thing: Are traditional bookstores under threat from e-books?

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In a world where books are just a click away, the digital onslaught of e-books and Amazon-style retailers has put bookstores in a difficult predicament. Is the bricks-and-mortar family bookstore on borrowed time? Trisha Hughes finds out.

I’ve always imagined that Heaven will be a kind of library. I’m the sort of person who gets drunk off that old book smell and I believe that something magical happens when you physically open a book. Buying a book is not about purchasing a possession. It’s about securing a portal to the unknown because books aren’t made up of only words and pages. They’re made up of hopes, dreams and possibilities. They let us travel anywhere we want without even moving our feet.

We can lose ourselves in books but we can also find ourselves there too. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper, world after world after world unfolds and if you listen, they sing to you. They really do. Books are the quietest and most constant of friends, the wisest of counsellors and the most patient of teachers.

So why are bookstores across the globe facing closure? Have digital books led us astray? Have we been lured away by the siren song of Amazon’s underpricing? Have we been careless, failing to support the very places that have hosted our children’s story hours and brought in touring authors at summerreading tables for them? Is there even a future for the bookstore?

Living on borrowed time

The older I get, the more I realise I just need the simple things in life to make me happy: a comfy home surrounded by the people I love, a good book to read and a local meeting place to catch up with friends. Having said that, I know I’m not the only one who was devastated last month to hear that Dymocks had shut its doors in DB Plaza.

To most DBers, Dymocks wasn’t just a bookstore. It was a social venue for readers who loved to browse and chat. I’ve spent many happy hours there with a book in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. Looking up, I’ve realised that everyone was carrying on with their lives as usual, as though I hadn’t just experienced an emotional trauma at the hands of a paperback.

Dymocks was somewhere we spent time with our kids and grandkids, sharing our love of books over a juice and a coffee. Very little beats saying to a child, ‘Pull up a chair, I have a story to tell you’. By introducing children to our favourite authors, we teach them that while there are some books you read, and some you enjoy, there are others that just swallow you up heart and soul. They are the proof that some books work magic. As Plato said, “Books give a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”

Family-dedicated Dymocks and its welcoming owners, Susan and Carlos Leung, will be sadly missed. Of the closure, Susan explains: “It has been an impossible battle but we’ve run this race the best way we can. We lost quite a lot of money but have gained so much life experience, knowing so well this trade is not for standalone owners. We are glad to know Bookazine will come in, for them it should be easier with financial backup and a wholesale distributor.”

And there, of course, is the silver lining: Bookazine is relocating this month from DB North Plaza to a much larger premises in DB Plaza.

Upholding a tradition

In my humble opinion, to be successful, bookstores must have small, quiet spaces cocooned with books, larger spaces to browse, and intimate spaces set aside for reading. Service should be knowledgeable, the inventory expertly selected, spaces well designed and the events enticing. Bookstores must also buzz with activity – authors must be allowed to have launches and read excerpts from their books. Bookstores must improve the experience of buying books and go one step further.

Talking to Bookazine’s marketing manager Clemence Robine, I am assured that the family-run chain, established 31 years ago in Hong Kong, is about to come into its own in its new DB location. For starters, readers will be delighted to note that the store’s opening event on November 19 is a family sleepover. Clemence says we can “expect storytelling, cookies and milk and lots of fun”.

For the team at Bookazine, headed up by the Mirchandani sisters, it seems every consideration has been pondered. “We want to make our customers’ lives easy,” says Clemence. “If we don’t have a book you want in DB, we can bring it over from one of our other branches, or order it especially for you. We also have an in-store Partytime shop selling [imported] balloons and piñatas, partyware, party decorations, party bags and more. We always welcome suggestions on the products we carry in our shops.”

Assured that children in the community are going to be well looked after, I have one more question for Clemence, one that is dear to my heart. What about local authors? “We champion local authors and often do book launches and signings and we often organise family-focused events,” she says.

There are only three choices in life: Give up, give in or give it your all. In Bookazine, books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs are by elevators. The Mirchandanis have accepted the challenge and they are giving it their all. It is now up to us to support our local bookstore.

Resources for local booklovers

  • Sign your little bookworms up for creative writing classes. The Story Studio runs 90-minute workshops in DB for kids who love reading and writing stories. Email thestorystudiohk@yahoo.com
  • Start a book club. Meeting with friends, who share your love of books, can be a lot of fun. The best book clubs are hosted at members’ homes with a different author discussed each month
  • Stay abreast of the local writing scene. Proverse, co-founded by DB residents Gillian and Verner Bickley, publishes in and from Hong Kong and hosts regular Meet the Author events. The Proverse Prize is an annual, international competition for an unpublished, publishable, book-length work of fiction, non-fiction, or poetry. To find out more, email proverse@netvigator.com
  • Watch out for family-focused events and book signings at Bookazine in DB Plaza. Email clemence@bookazine.com.hk


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