Dublin’s Bargain Book Bonanza
Any word preceded by BARGAIN printed in large, high-visibility letters is sure to attract customers in large numbers, even just for a look, especially now, at a time when bargain doesn’t carry the same negative connotations it once did; customers want to pay less and are getting used to doing so.
While the idea of remainders (to say nothing of pulping) is an uncomfortable one for publishers, oftentimes it’s a good way of cutting losses on a book that might not be working.
If you wanted cheap books before the arrival of this new breed of bargain bookstore, in Dublin, you went to the now comparatively old-school discount bookshops (which stock new books alongside remainders and second-hand books) like Books Upstairs and Chapters, who place emphasis on quality and range, ambience and loyal customers yet still manage to be pretty cheap.
These new shops are essentially louder Hodges Figgis bargain basements with more windows and brightly-coloured signage. The shop floors are dotted with waist-high stacks of hardbacks and coffee table books priced less than the cost of the round-trip bus fare or petrol it took to get you there.
The fiction sections consist mainly of more prominent authors’ backlists with few or no midlist authors, and vast quantities of large-format hardbacks.
The proximity both in terms of physical location and product, of these new bargain book shops to full priced shops would lead one to think that they must be competing with each other.
However, one bargain shop manager said, ‘We wouldn’t see it as competition – we don’t have any regular customers really, it’s just impulse buys.’
Speaking to managers and staff at both bargain and full-priced bookshops around Dublin, the overwhelming consensus at the shop-level is that they don’t see each other as competition.
Bargain stores acknowledge that they aren’t the same kind of shop – they don’t carry the same stock and ostensibly don’t attract the same customers who came into town intending to buy books.
Traditional retailers are more dismissive of the threat, mainly because they haven’t been hurt by the new arrivals. A bookseller on the floor at a large, city-centre chain said, ‘They just have a lot of the stuff we couldn’t sell – backlists and coffee table books that don’t really sell anyway . . . Most of the discount and quantity buying is done at our corporate headquarters, but we’re getting about the same books in we always did.’
Asked whether customers were buying differently, browsing differently, more annoyed about pricing, an employee at another large shop summed it up with a simple, ‘No.’
One possibility is that the impact of the new bargain stores is not yet visible because it is still only very small. Or maybe it hasn’t yet had time to manifest itself in hard numbers or consumer behaviour; which wouldn’t be unusual for new entrants to a market.
It may be as simple as people aren’t stupid, they know the difference. Bargain bookshops provide an outlet for customers who aren’t too picky about what they leave with once it’s decent and the price is low enough.
For customers with a specific book in mind or fussier customers, they are less useful: the best case scenario is there will be one or two titles by an author you like, by an author you’ve been meaning to read (which may or may not be the one you’ve heard of), or one you read a review of some months previously but forgot to buy. In any event, you go in with a different set of expectations.
The past couple of decades have seen the arrival of at least three perceived threats to traditional bookselling and publishers alike; the internet, supermarket booksellers and ebooks. All of these have been selling books with strikingly low price tags.
But inasmuch as every bookselling venue has to play to its strengths and as relatively cheap books are becoming such a commonplace sight even in traditional bookstores, making venue even less and less important, it ultimately remains to be seen what this new player’s effect will be.