The Last Days of a Dying Behemoth

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Picture: Anita Dalton

Borders bookstores have been holding fire sales and closing their doors all over Melbourne. I’ve found myself in three of them at various stages of dissolution – Camberwell, Chadstone and Melbourne Central.

This process began after REDgroup, owners of the Borders and Angus and Robertson chains in Australia, went into voluntary administration in February. But it intensified when the administrators announced at the beginning of June that they couldn’t find a buyer for the troubled company; now all 25 Borders stores in Australia have either closed or are due to close, not just the less profitable ones.

A few weeks ago I was in the Camberwell store on one of the last days of trading, searching for a bargain. What a forlorn picture it presented, rows of near-empty shelves with their familiar pale wood finish punctuated by small clumps of tired-looking books with bright yellow sale stickers on them.

All the shop fittings were up for sale, from magazine racks and bargain bins to card stands, tables and shelving; anyone wanting to set up a retail store could have stocked up for a song.

It was a strange feeling, seeing this slain behemoth take its dying breaths. When Borders moved into Australia almost 13 years ago it did so aggressively, threatening the viability of Melbourne’s vibrant independent bookstore culture.

The first Borders in Australia opened at the Jam Factory, in Chapel Street South Yarra, in 1998. But Borders’ most outrageous act was to situate its generic brand of bookselling in Lygon Street Carlton, over the road from a beloved Melbourne institution, Readings bookstore, with the aim of killing Readings off. Once a sole store in Melbourne, Readings had already become a small chain due to its astute business model.

Unfazed, Readings stuck to its model, continuing to hold launches, author talks and music performances several times a week, nurture its staff, and maintain a famous bargain table with discounts on quality books that put Borders bargains to shame. Readings did not simply survive, it thrived, perhaps working even harder to keep its loyal customer base; it now produces a literary newsletter once a month, complementing and advertising the author events.

(Sadly, the arrival of Borders spelled the end of trading in Lygon Street for an independent discount bookstore, Andrew's Books.)

Readings has continued to expand, with a new store opening in St Kilda a few years ago and one in the foyer of the State Library. It supports local small presses, and partners with a huge number of charitable and community organisations. Ever-adaptable, Readings recently opened an ebook store, complementing its bricks-and-mortar stores.

Yet there was no sense of triumph for me at wandering through the dying Borders stores. Only twinges of sadness at the passing of an era. For a time it seemed that Borders and Readings in Carlton had been able to coexist; having two bookshops in the one precinct was definitely an advantage for customers.

I browsed for ages in the Camberwell store before I found this bargain: a $1 hardback book on the work of the Duke University Parapsychology Laboratory. It was near the back entrance, on a set of shelves with discounts even higher than the 80 per cent off most of the books had.

This kind of experience – attending a depressing closing-down sale in a bookstore – seems to be emblematic of the decline in the book retail industry in Australia. But is it?

Why the demise?

Reasons commonly cited for the demise of REDgroup are the penetration of Kindle into the ebook market, rising rents, the cost of books in Australia compared with overseas online retailers such as Amazon, import restrictions and the strong Australian dollar.

But some commentators insist that Borders failed because it did not adapt and diversify in response to the difficult conditions facing bookstores. Certainly it would be wrong to blame online bookstores alone for the failure; it’s estimated that of all the books and music sold in Australia, less than 10 per cent is sold online.

Recently the federal Minister for Small Business, Nick Sherry gave a warning to booksellers – that they would be extinct in five years if they did not pull their socks up. They loudly refuted him; the head of the Australian Booksellers Association, Joel Becker, said he was stunned, and that the minister’s remarks didn’t reflect what was going on in the industry.

One action that the Australian Government could take right away to help ease the pressure on booksellers is to remove the GST from all books, not just those sold online from overseas retailers. Sadly, that’s not likely to happen any time soon.
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Become an expert at navigating online sales!

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Websites that offer tantalising sales and get-in-quick daily offers can make shopping look like a game! How do you navigate this dizzying world of opportunity and temptation without ending up with goods that aren’t that good, or right for you?

More and more sales, whether for sleek fashion labels, cool accessories, designer towels or boxing tackle, are happening solely over the internet. Some shopping websites function as clubs that you join to receive email notice of upcoming sales. Other websites have daily deals that only last a day.

These sales can offer incredible bargains, with goods discounted by as much as 80 per cent. Arm yourself with the techniques below and you’re much more likely to find genuine bargains, while avoiding the duds!

How to make the most of online sales without overspending

* Use routing software in your email program so that all your sales email goes into one folder before you’ve read it. This means that email alerts for sales won’t confront you as soon as you open your email program - you decide when you want to view the sales.

* Allocate a set time of day and a set amount of time to go through online sales invitations. If you have a spending problem, you could confine yourself to one day of the week when you allow yourself to take part in online sales.

* Create a list of all the things you need and are thinking of buying, and keep it handy. (This is called a Priority List – more information about this list is available in my book The Inspired Shopper.) When you’re browsing an online sale and you find something you’d like to buy, if it’s not already on your list, think carefully before buying it.

* Create a budget and stick to it. This could include a set amount of money that you spend on different categories, eg clothes and cosmetics.

* Alternatively, have a preset limit you will spend on online shopping on any one day or week, or any particular sale (but use intuition to decide the amount – if you just use your rational mind you’ll be tempted to outspend the limit and end up feeling guilty).

* Try to stay in the present moment while you’re checking out the sale items. Be aware of your breathing and surroundings. Take note of your reactions to those tantalising goods as they come up on the screen, but try not to judge your reactions. (I’ll be providing more tips for staying grounded while shopping online in a future post.)

* As you’re checking out different sales, imagine yourself wandering along a shopping mall, past many shops with SALE signs. You don’t need to go into all those stores, just the ones that call to you in some way. And even if you choose to go in, you don’t have to buy.

* Don’t be tempted to buy more than you really need just because it makes the postage costs more worthwhile.

* Always use your intuition when deciding whether or not to buy, and don’t be afraid to pass on something if it doesn’t feel right. Remember, you don’t have to know why it’s not right. When you obey your gut feeling in this way, you can be sure that something better will come along at the right time.

Now that you’re armed with  tools and techniques for making the most of online sales, enjoy yourself! And remember, sometimes ‘just looking’ is enough to give you that shopping hit we all crave.
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The Inspired Shopper is now available!

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I’m thrilled to announce that my new book, The Inspired Shopper, is now available! You can get it now on Amazon as a Kindle ebook.

The Inspired Shopper teaches you how to become a precision shopper, quickly and efficiently locating the goods that are right for you – at the right price. It’s the culmination of many years of research and practice as I refined and developed the techniques of Inspired Shopping.

At only $5.99, it's a real bargain.

You don’t need a Kindle to buy and read this book. You do need to download a free Kindle app first. It’s very easy and doesn’t cost a cent.

If you buy the book, please consider including a short review for the Amazon website, and tagging the book.

More info about the book is available on the Inspired Shopper website.
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Sole mates, or a gift that suits me down to the ground

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One of the reasons I became an inspired shopper was because, around the time I became a uni student more than two decades ago, I completely lost the ability to find and choose clothes that suited me. It was partly my increasingly radical political views, which assumed that anything vaguely feminine was oppressive to women, and partly that I had no money to buy clothes. They simply stopped being something I wore for aesthetic purposes.

It would take decades to regain the strong sense of style I had when I was growing up, helped by my mother’s above-average sewing skills (which sadly she never managed to pass onto me, although she tried). I’d have the odd fashion bulls-eye, say for a one-off outfit for a wedding, and then, spurred on to greater confidence by that fluke, would buy something perfectly horrible that did nothing for me.

All during this sartorially challenging period of my life, my older sister stood before me as a beacon of classic style. While all my four sisters have what I consider good taste in clothes, my older sister has better than that: ‘a good eye’. She can pick something a mile off that will last for seasons, and she seems to instinctively know which colours and styles complement her looks, and which to avoid. Nor does she spend hundreds on designer threads, although she’s capable of choosing the occasional expensive outfit for a super-special event; she mainly buys high-end chain store fashion and has been known to wear the same piece for up to four years. With an eye like hers she really should be working in retail.

Anyway, apart from a one-off event during the worst of my particularly bad dressing period when she bought me a pair of fashionable culottes as a Christmas present, and her bequeathing me some decent cast-offs from her own collection over the years, my sister doesn’t normally give me wearable presents. But at my recent birthday she made an exception to this rule because she happened across a bargain that was so outstanding she couldn’t pass it up.

I give you, ladies and gentlemen, one of the bargains of the century - brand-new sandals that are exactly 95.9 per cent off the original price. They were priced at $5, down from the original $120. My sister found them in Myers, a large department store. She was going to buy a pair for herself but the sizing wasn’t right so she bought a pair for me instead as part of my birthday present.

Now, I’m not the sort of person who wears heels every day, but I can certainly handle them on special occasions. There are some instances when heels and a fancy top are just enough to make a pair of skinny jeans or denim flares look something special. And these sandals feel pretty comfortable; they have platform soles, so they don’t result in the excessive arching of the feet that a pair of stilettos necessitates.

Oh dear, it sounds as if I'm rationalising my love of these high heels, a fashion item that is normally not high on my priority list. Let's put it this way instead - like all good presents, these sandals are something I wouldn’t have bought for myself, but I’m extremely glad my sister bought them for me!
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Groovy Secondhand Bookshop with a Conscience

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While I’m a fan of small business retailers, I don’t normally use this blog to promote individual businesses - that’s not its aim. But when I stumbled upon Second Edition bookstore recently I was so impressed by the stylish fit-out and store concept that I had to include a plug in this blog.

Second Edition is a secondhand bookstore run by the Brotherhood of St Laurence, a Melbourne-based organisation that combats poverty through research; advocacy; and hands-on, innovative programs.

The store, at the quieter end of a well-established shopping strip in whitebread suburban Malvern, boasts a cafe selling Fairtrade coffee, loads of great books, vinyl records and magazines, iMacs on which to check out the associated online bookstore, and a sublime, retro-stroke-nerdy- atmosphere that Gen Ys should flock to.

Wooden display shelves creating a bold, assymetrical pattern perch high above a groovy round table smack in the centre, anchored by slats rather than conventional legs. Behind that you’ll find a comfy seventies lounge suite on which to lounge as you sample the merchandise. The seductive smell of freshly brewed coffee wafts through the air.

This store could become something of an oasis for those who feel a little out of place among the area’s conservative baby boomers and the hundreds of younger, four-wheel-drive-owning families who perhaps once aspired and have now reached their aspirations. And I'd hope that some of the older and cooler of the private school kids who stream down Glenferrie Road at around 4 pm on weekdays might adopt it as their own.

Not only is this groovy place raising money for the work of the good old BSL, but it offers traineeships in retail and hospitality. They’re also looking for volunteers.

So please, if you live in Melbourne, pop in and check it out. And if you don’t, consider buying from the online bookstore.

Second Edition is at 215 Glenferrie Rd Malvern. The opening hours are Monday to Friday 8 am to 5 pm and Saturday 10 am to 5 pm.

Disclaimer: In a previous lifetime I worked for the BSL as information officer. So sue me!
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