Some years ago I was walking behind the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney and came across "Tea in The Library". This was an old fashioned bookstore downstairs in a basement, with comfy chairs, where you could have tea and browse a book.
I attended the launch of the book "Cycling Around Sydney" at Tea in the Library in 2004. No doubt the venue was excellent for writers and for those wanting a nostalgic look at what perhaps bookstores used to look like, but the shop never looked quite real; more like a set designer's idea of what a bookstore looks like:
Fulfilling the dream of many a book-lover, Annette Freeman bravely stepped outside her mid-life comfort zone and opened a bookshop café in the heart of Sydney. Tea In The Library became a beloved haven of readers and a cosy forum for writers. Plus a great place for coffee - and nineteen varieties of tea. But behind the scenes were anxieties large and small, frustrations, challenges, and - now and again - glorious moments of success. Welcome to retail! "How hard can it be to run a successful small business?" Annette asked herself. "People do it every day. It can't be rocket science." We find the answer to that question, and it is sobering news for those wannabe bookshop or café owners out there. The triumphs and disasters, the eccentric characters and the myriad challenges of retail are spiced with wry observation and a good sprinkling of literary references. In the end, everyone will have a view on what could have been done differently to save a small bookshop café that briefly lit up the Sydney literary scene.Tea in the Library looked to me like a pleasant fantasy, a bookstore like that in, "You've Got Mail". The publicity for the Tea in the Library launch reads like a synopsis of the film: "Annette Freeman's dream became reality and then went bust in an industry ruled by the big players ...".
From: Book Description, Amazon.com, 2007
Regrettably the reality is that few are willing to pay for a bookstore atmosphere. While I browsed in Tea in the Library several times and even had coffee there (not tea), I only ever bought one book. Similarly I still like to browse printed magazines in the library, while at the same time helping to replace them with online publications. Recently in Melbourne I visited the marvelous reading room of the State Library, but while the institution is flourishing, books and magazines have almost disappeared from the public areas.
One indications of the crushing economics of book selling, is that even before the launch of Tea in the Library, several online booksellers were offering discounted second hand copies.
There will be still room in the world for a few bookstores, but they will have to pay their way. One example of a very atmospheric bookstore is at Bangalore airport in India. This is packed floor to ceiling with an eclectic mix of books on topics from religion to engineering and packed with people browsing and buying. Similarly Blackwell's bookshop in Oxford has an atmosphere, as does the Cambridge University Press bookstore. Also there is still some cachet to buy a books where it is from.