Bookstore stays afloat in digital age

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  • Books galore: Hannah Willmott, manager of the Bermuda Bookstore in Hamilton, is optimistic that people will continue to favour smaller bookstores and having a physical book to hold and read, despite the increasing prevalence of electronic books and online bookstores.

  • Books galore: Hannah Willmott, manager of the Bermuda Bookstore in Hamilton, is optimistic that people will continue to favour smaller bookstores and having a physical book to hold and read, despite the increasing prevalence of electronic books and online bookstores.

In the digital age of tablets, e-readers and downloads, can traditional bookstores survive?

The Bermuda Bookstore on Queen Street has been selling books since around the middle of the last century. It is filled from floor to ceiling with just about every type of book imaginable, from novels to non-fiction, children’s books to coffee table tomes.

But its business has halved in the past five years, according to co-owner Hannah Willmott.

The increasing popularity of e-readers, such as the Kindle, which allow a person to immediately order and download a book with a few simple clicks, together with the burgeoning dominance of online store Amazon, which has grown its share of the book market from eight percent to 31 percent in the past decade, have put a squeeze on brick-and-mortar bookstores.

Mrs Willmott could not say categorically if the drop in sales she has seen is purely down to digital and online competition, or whether it is also a result of the departure of thousands of workers from the Island in recent years.

However, she is aware of the impact online competition and digital options are having on booksellers. In the US the number of physical stores selling books has fallen in the past 10 years from 25,137 to 15,333. Major chain Borders went out of business, closing 600 stores. At the same time sales of digital books have rocketed and even surpassed the sale of hardcover copies in the US.

But Mrs Willmott is optimistic the Bermuda Bookstore can hold its own by providing the personal touch and a tactile shopping experience missing from online purchasing.

She recently attended an independent booksellers’ event in the US, which gave her added encouragement.

“The IndieBound group say independent bookstores are doing quite well,” she said. “I think smaller bookstores are the only ones with any hope. People like the personal touch. They want to hear recommendations. They like to come in and be recognised and they like you to talk to them.”

Mrs Willmott appears perfectly at home in the cosy shop where she has been manager for the past 11 years ago. As a steady stream of customers come in and out she answers their book-related queries and provides recommendations when asked. It is the type of personal touch a customer would not get if they ordered a book online.

She acknowledges the convenience factor that e-books give, not only their instant availability, but also their portability when travelling.

Bermuda Bookstore does its best to compete with its online competition. If a book isn’t in stock, the shop can order it and generally have it available within a week, a service most customers are happy with, although Mrs Willmott has had potential customers go away and buy the e-book version if they couldn’t get the physical book there and then at the store.

However, she believes many customers simply enjoy coming in to the store, browsing and picking up a book to look at. “People are very tactile and like to touch things,” she said.

She also pointed out that some books do not lend themselves to digital format, such as photobooks and large ‘coffee table’ books. Many local books are not available on the internet and older books tend not to have been converted to electronic format.

Bermuda Bookstore has a second outlet at LF Wade International Airport, which opened last year. Together, the two stores have two full-time and three part-time staff. Presently sales are covering the cost of doing business. “We are staying afloat,” said Mrs Willmott.

Asked about current book trends, she said vampire novels were ‘over’, but there is interest in Downton Abbey-type publications, and another big seller is the novel ‘50 Shades of Grey’, which ironically started life as an e-book before becoming a physical book.

Looking to the future and the increasing prevalence of digital books and online bookstores, Mrs Willmott said: “I’m not worried. It is inevitable. It’s a bit sad in some ways. But there will always be bookstores because people still like them, and it would be a boring world if people could not go (to a store) and interact with other people.”

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Published Feb 25, 2013 at 8:00 am (Updated Feb 24, 2013 at 5:59 pm)

Bookstore stays afloat in digital age

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