No room for mammoths

JANUARY 23 ― I don’t know about you, but for me, a trip to the mall is never complete without visiting the bookstore. It has always been a place to check out the latest comics, ogle at fancy stationery or merely a transit point to weather out my mother’s shopping shenanigans.

In the past few decades, we have seen a rise of impressively large “megamalls” across the Klang Valley which has in turn spawned equally impressive mammoth-sized “megabookstores.” These can range from local outlets like MPH and Popular to international brands like Kinokuniya, Borders and Times.

Changing times

But then again, I think “had” is the more suitable verb to use now. It seems like the “megabookstores” are fast disappearing; similar to mammoths at the end of the last Ice Age.

Just two weeks ago, I was planning to visit one of them in a city mall, an oasis of knowledge in a desert of material consumption. You can imagine the shock on my face when the bookstore I wanted to visit looked like it had vanished into thin air. Instead, a couple restaurants stood in its place.

The bookstore used to be one of the few with a respectable size, comparable to many department stores.

Then the feeling of déjà vu hit me. This was all too familiar. It wasn’t that long ago that the paradise that was MPH in Mid Valley was taken away from us; banished to an underground corner, a pale shadow of its former self. From its ashes, rose another multinational retail clothing outlet.

End of an era?

Pardon my melodramatic tone but I believe this “megabookstore” shrinking phenomena is a symptom of a larger underlying issue that warrants our attention.

Has the “megabookstore” business model become unsustainable? What are the factors that have led to this downsizing exercise across major bookstore brands? Does this then mean that Malaysians are reading less?

The expansion of major cities across Malaysia also translates into more malls and hence new business opportunities for major bookstore brands. Popular and MPH have a particularly wide national coverage with 89 and 32 outlets respectively; with the former opening two new outlets in the past one month! This could be a case of sacrificing individual bookstore size for branch quantity.

Aside from that, fierce competition from bulk bookstores like BookXcess (that also organises the mouth-watering Big Bad Wolf Sales) and alternative publishing houses like DuBook Press and Legen Press flood the market with enough reading material to last a lifetime. The former offering cheap books while the latter offers a glimpse into the “indie” scene.

The rise of online book purchasing has arguably made physical bookstores less relevant. One can simply browse through a catalogue, pick books that tickle one’s fancy and with a few extra clicks, have them delivered to your doorstep in no time. It is no wonder that MPH now calls itself Malaysia’s No. 1 online bookstore while other major brands have online purchasing options available.

Choices, choices

In a study of reading habits among local public university students, researchers have found that reading was ranked the 7th most popular past time. This activity was below other more “appealing” activities such as watching television, shopping and obviously, sleeping.

However, the study noted that books were ranked 5th among popular reading materials behind presumably more readily available sources like newspapers, magazines, comics and online material. The study also supported the hypothesis that students today are reading more than students a decade ago, just that their sources have become increasingly varied.

I argue that this situation can be extrapolated to represent what is happening in the country. Malaysians have access to a variety of reading material alternatives like online portals, e-books and Facebook (not actually a book) which are arguably more cost-effective. Gone were the days when a satiating a reading fix meant a trip to the local bookstore.

The elephant in the room

Going back to our mammoth analogy, conservationists can agree that extinction of Earth’s megafauna (mammoths included) coincided with a momentous event in our geological history: the coming of modern humans i.e. Homo sapiens. This came with an ecological price.

If I could summarise it in one sentence: the Earth is now less fertile because in the past, large megafauna had the ability to travel long distances and with that disperse nutrients in the form of their excrement. Not the most appealing story to tell, I know.

Nonetheless, I could mirror this with the downsizing situation. Due to limited shelf space in smaller bookstores, many titles that can be put out for display will potentially be overlooked. The profit-oriented nature of this industry sacrifices variety for titles that are in popular demand.

Though not all is doom and gloom.

Mammoths might have been extinct since the last Ice Age but their elephant cousins still roam the Earth. Let’s hope that the compact and robust stature of smaller bookstores bode well in maintaining the reading ecosystem of today.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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