No friend as loyal as a book
The Northern Times contributor Matilda Siebrecht continues her series on local businesses during the Coronavirus outbreak. This time, she looks at how bookshops are coping with online businesses surging during the pandemic
By Matilda Siebrecht
Despite the ubiquity of online streaming services, escaping into a good book is as popular as ever, and even though our access to physical book shops might be more restricted at the moment, the wonder of the internet means that it’s still possible to order that heart-fluttering romance or stomach-clenching thriller from the comfort of our own home. Unfortunately, ordering anything online these days inevitably leads us to one particular site, whose owner, as well as being exposed to criticism concerning the working conditions of his employees, has profited hugely from the increase in digital sales over the last few months.
Did you know that the first item ever ordered through Amazon (by a non-employee) was a book? Specifically, Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought by Douglas Hofstadter. Since then, Amazon has become one of the biggest online book sellers, with surveys from 2019 showing that 42% of all physical book purchases are conducted through their site (and that’s not considering the sale of e-books, plus the increase in sales over the last year thanks to the coronavirus pandemic).
There are of course alternative online options. For example, businesses like Libris are now working more with local bookshops rather than multinational suppliers, and Bazarow focuses on selling books according to ‘restitution capitalism’ (a less exploitative money-making model). However, these online retail platforms usually work alongside larger business, and smaller independent bookstores are left even further behind.
“The larger internet stores are very powerful because they are funded in most cases by the largest investors in the world,” says Allard Steenbergen, owner of the Godert Walter bookshop. “Unfortunately, the more people buy online, the less products are stocked at local stores.”
Even small shops that are trying to focus more on online sales are struggling to keep up with the larger players. “We have really grown thanks to our website,” said Thijs Buiting, who has been director of de Zwerver travel bookshop for over 25 years. “We now send thousands of parcels per year within the Netherlands and Belgium. But online, people almost always opt for the best findability, largest name, and lowest price, which is not easy to work against as a smaller company.”
For smaller, local shops, physical customers are still the main source of profit, as well as the heart and soul of their companies. Relationships with the customers are an important part of every small business, with owners who want to share their passion. “If you love the things you’re selling, people will recognize that,” says Steenbergen. “Recommendations will be more personal. On the internet, the range of products is just too big for some people.”
Shops like de Zwerver, which specialises in a particular genre, can be even more focused in their recommendations. “Our customers are not anonymous and we are immediately available for questions, problems or [to give] help,” says Buiting. “That’s where our strength really lies. We all have a lot of fun in our profession, the subject, and the customer.” However, this focus in expertise also means that shops like de Zwerver have been hit even harder by the current pandemic. “Travel organizations and tour operators are in very difficult circumstances,” admits Buiting. “Long journeys and now also travel in Europe are practically at a standstill. Both the website and the store are declining rapidly, the store especially, because people are clearly entering the city less.”
Shopping local honors local history
As Christmas inserts itself ever further into the picture, many people will be busy writing their wish lists. If you’re anything like me, then books will definitely feature; after all, we all love a good story. And if that’s the case, then you will love the history of some of the established local bookshops in Groningen. For example, Godert Walter is named after the original founder, who opened the bookshop in 1942. During the war, he was part of the Underground Movement, which involved the secret sales of books that were forbidden by the occupying Nazis. Unfortunately, he was then betrayed, and was executed in his own house in 1944.
The bookshop has since passed through the hands of four other owners, but the name has remained in honour of the original founder. The shop is now run by both Steenbergen and Erwin de Fries, and includes books in a range of subjects, as well as in German and English, all of which can be bought in person or ordered through one of their specialised websites.
This is a perfect example of how shopping local not only helps to support present businesses, but also honours past local history, and in many ways can also protect a community’s future. Steenbergen is optimistic that people will continue to focus on ordering deliveries from a local source. “If you look at the search input of customers, in 40% of cases people fill in the name of the product together with the place they live. People are not only looking for alternatives for the large internet stores, they more and more realize that it is also quite logical and sustainable to buy a product that is already available within a very short distance of their homes.”
So maybe now is the time to brush up on your local history, or research some local walking routes. And in doing so, you will be engaging with a multi-layered story; not just those tantalising tales within the pages of the book, but also the histories and futures of the local shops themselves.