These are rocky times in the book business. You read the alarming news reports every month: retail stores are closing in waves, people are reading less, and the few remaining readers — the ones who aren’t downloading porn or super-sizing it at the Golden Arches — are either buying their books online or switching to e-devices to feed their habit. And in this digitized modern world, people have more entertainment options than ever to take up what little free time they have. Between the Internet, DVDs, and other media distractions, people just don’t seem all that interested in reading as much as they used to do.
I own a secondhand bookshop, Dasa Books, in Bangkok, one that has been in business for seven years. At this point I’d like to think I know what I’m doing and am pretty good with this book stuff. This past December we had our best sales month ever. Then along came January 2011 and that was even better. Wow! So far, February has also been quite busy. How busy? I did a quick calculation of sales for the first two weeks of the month, and wango bango, we’ve done it again: the daily average thus far this month is, once again, our best ever. But I know the highs won’t last much longer. We’re still in the midst of “High Season” here in Thailand, and have lots of tourists to supplement our regular stable of customers. Plus, the annual Lunar (Chinese) New Year flow of visitors this month has also helped boast sales. It’s supposed to be a good time of year for business, but should it be this good?
Clearly, at least from my perspective here in Bangkok, people are still reading —and more importantly, buying — books. But my bookshop appears to be defying a worldwide trend, and thriving instead of dying. So what’s going on? I’d love to think that I possess some sort of magic touch, am a marketing genius, and have the uncanny ability to anticipate what customers want to buy. But no, that’s not it. I do make it a point to keep my shop well-stocked with a wide variety of titles in various genres, strive to create a comfortable shopping environment (we serve coffee and tea, and have tables and chairs for customers to sit and relax, and of course play great music), try to keep the shelves organized properly (apparently putting your books in alphabetical order is a rarely practiced concept here in Asia), keep our prices competitive (not dirt cheap but not expensive either), and offer a half-price back return policy on the secondhand books we sell. But the bottom line, I think, is that there are still many diehard readers who want to read real books. If you offer than a good selection of books at fair prices, they will come.
But over the mountains and across the sea, retailers in America are singing the blues: business sucks and many stores are going out of business or filing for bankruptcy. The impact of those shiny new electronic readers — Amazon’s Kindle, the Nook from Barnes & Noble, and the new iPad — is cited as one reason for declining sales and the closing of so many retail stores. Of course more people are buying these devices and downloading new titles instead of going to a brick and mortar retail store to buy them. But looking at it from another perspective, are these devices really taking that much of a chunk away from retail book sales? Quite possibly these convenient new devices might inspire more of the masses to pick up the regular reading habit, and in turn some of these neophyte readers might even get curious and buy a few real books with real pages to turn. Who is say you can’t have the best of both worlds?