Bookmark’s Mike Hamm on the Future of Bookselling


This interview was conducted by email with Mike Hamm of Bookmark, one of Canada’s finest independent bookstores.

1) The big-box stores in Canada are now planning for a landscape with increased e-book sales. But what do you think will be the impact of ebooks on independent booksellers in the near term?

Currently, spoken demand from our regular shoppers for e-material is negligible. So far, all the conversations we’ve had with people seem to stem from their sense of curiosity or concern for our well-being. They want to know how this new technology has impacted our sales because they do not want to see us disappear from their community, their neighbourhood of stores. Not once have I fielded an enquiry for an ebook order.

Some of our friends have admited that they own e-readers, mostly given as gifts this past holiday season or purchased for travelling or professional needs. Even these customers are still buying books from us. We’ve gathered that most of the material that is read on their devices would be described by them as disposable: romances, science fiction, newspapers, magazines.

So overall, in the near term, there has been minimal impact on our trade as a small independent, with no immediate need to change inventory mix, the physical plan or direction of our financial resources. Rather, as the corporate entities in the marketplace strengthen their resolve to make ebooks the default means of publishing, the more our community wants us to continue to remain a place where interesting and beautiful printed books can be found on our shelves.

2) How might your role as an independent change as a result of the increasing adoption of ebooks and ezines?

As mentioned, the demand for ebooks or ezines has not materialized in our particular marketplace yet. It would be naive to think that it will always remain that way. What we would like to see is some effort on the part of Canada’s larger publishers/distributors to help us tap into that market if or when it becomes financially necessary for us to do so. However, whenever we have asked as one independent or within our association whether we could expect any kind of program to help us in the future, we have been basically told to fend for ourselves.

Even if independents make up only a small percentage of today’s book sales as compared to the big-box and chains, we are quite often the engine that creates word-of-mouth bestsellers and that counts for a lot. If only for that reason, I would think we merit the development of some means of selling ebooks. I have noticed that a few audio packages will contain an ebook download as part of the purchase. I think that would be a perfect way for a store like ours to offer someone an ebook. As most of us already have a section for audio books, it seems like a perfect match.

However, there seems to be no initiative on the part of our larger suppliers to address this issue for us. I hope that we can have a role in the changing marketplace but as an independent bookstore, I am just afraid that we’re not perceived as a big enough cog to warrant attention in this respect. Although without the little cogs, sometimes the big machine will break down. Mass market titles will be well served by ebooks alone. It is all the unknown, potential award winners that still need our voice and for that reason alone, we should be given an opportunity to participate.

3) What are your customers telling you about their involvement with e-readers and e-publishing?

As I said in my first answer, our customers’ response has been muted and when voiced, it has mostly involved their concern for our stability. The demise of other small book retailers has been linked to the growth of e-publishing and online purchasing options and our customers sometimes fear for our health.

We have been able to tell them that as long as we can find good books to order, we will and that through their loyalty, we have been able to ride the storm and even experienced year-to-year increases. I’ve mentioned to some of our friends that recently I sold books at a library event at which the author used his smart phone to read from his latest novel. It was the first time I had seen this happen. However, when fans lined up to meet him after the presentation, it was the printed book that he signed.

Our customers still love the heft of a world atlas, the feel of quality paper in a Gaspereau poetry collection, the smell of ink in a gorgeous art book and they want to see these on our shelves. On an airplane flight, some of these people may be reading the latest People bestseller as an ebook but here, they rejoice in what we’ve collected in our store. And they tell us this over and over.

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Mike Hamm

Mike Hamm is a bookseller in Halifax. You can find him at Bookmark on Spring Garden Road.