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Bookstores hanging in

Newsroom logo Newsroom 29/01/2023 Steve Braunias

A progress report on booksellers

Last week's shock news that Vic Books in Wellington is set to close – it's open for nine more trading weeks, shutting its doors for good on March 31 – has been felt deeply by Kiwi booksellers. "It happens to them, it happens to all of us," said Jenna Todd at Time Out bookstore in Mt Eden.

The issues Vic Books faced were specific and particular to their existence as a campus bookstore. As manager Jessica Godfrey said in her ReadingRoom interview last Thursday, "It's quite straightforward. Vic Books has a revenue problem caused by a depleted university population." It’s a kind of long Covid – lockdown changed working habits, and the consequence at Victoria University of Wellington is that the campus is sometimes deserted.

But is the closure a sign of fragility in the bookseller sector? Dan Slevin from Booksellers New Zealand was quick to issue a statement after Vic Books made its announcement: "We are wary…of any attempt at drawing wider conclusions about the sector from this news. Every bookshop is different."


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I put it to Slevin that there have been three other post-Covid bookstore closures. Beth's Books in Feilding didn't recover from lockdown, Scribes in Dunedin shut down when the building was sold, and Stills Books in Blenheim closed in August after 30 years in the trade – owner Colin Payne put it up for sale, but there were no takers.

Slevin responded, "None of those stores were members of Booksellers so I can't comment on them specifically. What I can say is that we have lost a couple of members in the past 18 months but that is due to retirement and a choice by the owners not to sell rather than trading issues." He meant Rona Gallery in Eastbourne, Moran's in Dargaville, and Paper Power in Browns Bay.

There are about 250 bookstores in New Zealand, including 193 members of Booksellers New Zealand; Slevin is on a recruitment drive of 47 other stores. "We have also added new stores (some online only, some bricks and mortar) and we also have two people who have taken up membership while they find suitable premises for new stores." He meant children's bookstore Pictura in Port Chalmers, Long Story Short and Green House Books (both online, looking for premises), and The Nook in Wellsford.

I asked whether the sector had experienced a post-lockdown recovery. "There was a boom after the first lockdown – that took everybody by surprise," he said. "While those heady days haven't been sustained, trading for most members has been in the range of satisfactory to good. It's quite variable though."

"Books are 'affordable luxuries' and I know publishers and booksellers are very keen to keep it that way": Dan Slevin, Booksellers NZ

Asked about the ongoing threat of online sales, to the evil Amazon empire in particular, Slevin replied, "We only have anecdotal evidence of how many sales are lost to offshore outlets but we do know that the vast majority of readers will try and source a book locally before resorting to other means. The 'shop local' campaigns during and after lockdowns reset a lot of habits, we believe.

"The introduction of GST on international imports prior to the pandemic was already changing behaviours as it meant there was less price advantage to shopping internationally. And those international retailers are just as impacted by supply chain challenges as local stores and in many cases are not any quicker than placing an order through your local bookshop."

Did sales at Xmas meet expectations?

"The market has been so weird since the pandemic started, I'm not sure whether anyone had 'expectations' as such. The Christmas period was variable across our members but I know some were pleasantly surprised at how sales held up – despite the Reserve Bank's entreaties for consumers to 'cool your jets'. It helps that there was a range strong titles in the market, even though there was no single 'hot' title that everyone seemed to need, except Ruby Tui's Straight Up, which was a local phenomenon."

What's the outlook for bookstores in 2023, as the dark cloud of economic recession seems to be hanging ever lower?

"There are serious concerns across all of retail about how consumer spending will be impacted by interest rate hikes etc. Nobody really knows how it will play out but we are confident the book trade will continue to do well – books are 'affordable luxuries' and I know publishers and booksellers are very keen to keep it that way."

Wendy Tighe-Umbers with Jenna Todd at Time Out: "New Zealand books rule, you know." © Provided by Newsroom Wendy Tighe-Umbers with Jenna Todd at Time Out: "New Zealand books rule, you know."

It was time to speak with booksellers around the country. Auckland's floods on Friday prevented a staff member at Time Out in Mt Eden from being able to get home, so customers brought in blankets and a pillow for her to sleep the night in the store's groovy upstairs loft. "Thank God the shop is okay," said manager Jenna Todd on Saturday morning. "Just a couple of minor leaks. We were lucky." She thanked good fortune, too, for the shop's sales performance since lockdown finished: "We're very lucky. We're suburban, so we're right amongst people's homes and remain visible to our customers. So it's the good luck of location and the demographic of our customers."

She was comparing Time Out's good luck with the bad luck for Vic Books to be located in the vacuum of a deserted campus. "That was devastating," she said. "But in Mt Eden, we are doing really well. We had our best January in a long, long time. I'd say that was because of the bad weather this summer."

I asked about sales since lockdown, and she said, "2021 was our biggest year ever. We don’t know if we can top that, but 2022 was still the second best year we've ever had."

As for the threat of some kind of recession, she said, "We feel upbeat. There are some big books coming out. Eleanor Catton [her novel Birnam Wood is in shops on February 9] will be ginormous. And of our best sellers in 2022, five of the top 10 were New Zealand titles, with Grand [the Noelle McCarthy memoir] at number one, and Greta and Valdin [Rebecca K Reilly's much-loved novel] at number two. New Zealand books rule, you know."

Sales of New Zealand fiction in 2022 enjoyed a 21 percent increase over 2021, and there was a reported 40 percent growth in sales of te reo Māori publishing. I called Sally Battson from The Next Chapter bookstore in Wānaka, which jumps in population from 15,000 residents to 35,000 during summer, and she said, "We've had some interesting things happen. A lot of younger overseas travellers came into the shop and said, 'Sell me a book that reflects New Zealand culture.' So we had Auē [Becky Manawatu], Kurangaituku [Whiti Hereaka] and Kāwai [Monty Soutar] flying out the door. We had six of those exact requests in a single day and it's been a definite trend. They didn't just want something by a New Zealand author but of the culture itself."

I asked, "So how's the shop going?"

She said, "We're bucking the trend. When I look at our software data for Australia and New Zealand, sales are down, but ours are up." The New Zealand Publishers Association reported in July last year that total revenue for New Zealand’s publishing market rose to $304.4 million, a growth of 0.7 percent on the previous year. But the total number of books sold was 21.1m – a drop of 0.8 percent.

Xmas sales at The Next Chapter were up on 2021, as were sales in the new year period. The shop is about to double its floor space and will add about 2000 books to its current stock of 10,000. "So we are feeling resilient and a little bit nervous."

"Birnam Wood [by Eleanor Catton] will be massive. We're ordering large on that one": Louise Ward, Wardinis bookstore

Louise Ward at Wardinis, which has stores in Napier and Havelock North, also enjoyed good Xmas sales. "But January has been very up and down. We're going to have to get creative." As an example, she was thinking of staging a Wednesday Murder Club, a book club that would meet in-store to discuss crime books. "We need quick wins to boost sales."

I remarked that Birnam Wood is the very definition of a quick win. "Yeah. That will be massive. We're ordering large on that one." But ordering is an art. Booksellers have to gaze into a crystal ball and order an exact number of books – too few and they'll sell out, leaving customers dissatisfied, too many and you're dealing with dead stock. Freight complicates the issue; since lockdown, seafreight has been slow and frustrating, for publishers, booksellers, readers, everyone. "When you're waiting for books for eight weeks, that's a problem. A lot of books have sold out and we're quite depleted. We're looking gappy toobar."

Gappy toobar! Among the absences at Wardinis are copies of Straight Up by Ruby Tui. "Oh man. We've got no Ruby. The initial stock lasted a month and a half, and we got more in November. We ran out before Xmas. I'll just see if there's any more on the way…Hang on....Okay...A carton is being airfreighted [from Australia] and due late January."

I said, "It is late January."

She said, "Yeah. I'm going to have to chase the rep up on that one."

What about other campus bookstores? As well as an empty campus, Vic Books had to confront issues of declining textbook sales, and deal with its owners, the Victoria University Students Association Trust. Dan Slevin from Booksellers New Zealand said, "We are disappointed that their landlords were not able to help them more as they rebuilt their business." University Bookshop (UBS) in Christchurch has the same issues as their doomed Wellington equivalent.

I spoke with UBS manager Pene Whitty on Saturday. She said, "I went to visit Vic Books last year and there was virtually no one on campus. Victoria were doing that hybrid learning thing. Here [at Canterbury University], the campus population has increased, and international students are starting to come back, too. There's a really good atmosphere in the store at the moment.

"So we're feeling really good. We've been there with the earthquake – we lost our store at the Christchurch hospital, supplying medical staff. We know what it's like to close a store. It's gutting. We had to lay off staff, and then we've had to deal with the reduction of textbooks – after the earthquake. Canterbury started putting things online. We saw a reduction on sales but the need is still there. It's an advantage if you have a physical copy. There's always a need to have actual textbooks."

After talks with the Canterbury University Students Association, UBS decided to reduce the footprint of the store by 50 percent. "We made hard decisions. Quite a few staff were made redundant. But now it's a great site, and a great space. It looks like a bookshop with textbooks. Sales in 2022 were up on the previous year, and we’re happily looking forward to this year."

What about the dark clouds of recession?

There was a pause on the line. It was the only time in our interview that she wasn't upbeat and joyful. "I think," she said, "it's going to be a hard couple of years for everyone."

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