Three Monkeys - Ten Minutes #2

So where do you buy your books? Personally, I get my SF fix from quite a wide range of sources including a number of the local retail outlets. It seems to me that the local retail scene is not as strong as it once was. When I first moved to Wellington, I was very impressed by the array of choices I had for purchasing SF. There was a specialist SF store (Huysers), Whitcoulls had a strong SF section and there were independent stores (Ahradsens and Unity) which also had strong SF areas which were noticeably different in choice from the chain stores.

Things are a little different now. Huysers is gone, of course, but there are still a lot of shops with SF sections. But the missing element is choice. Where previously, you could rely on Unity to have a very different selection of titles from other stores, now they are pretty much in line with all the others. Ahradsens appear to be moving slowly in the same direction.

The benchmark to measure the various book vendors against is Whitcoulls as they have the largest number of branches around town, especially if you include the London Bookshops which are part of the same group. It is a worry therefore that all Whitcoulls buying decisions are to be made out of a single office in Auckland. Any variety between stores is going to disappear. This is a worry as the Lambton Quay branch of Whitcoulls, in particular, has been a good friend to the local SF community.

Since I moved to Wellington, two book chains have started operations here. Paper Plus offer no distinctiveness at all for the SF reader, however Dymocks are a different matter. Ever since they set up shop on Lambton Quay, Dymocks have offered a slightly different selection of titles compared to other shops. In particular, they have been more willing to stock older titles. They have recently strengthened their commitment to SF by employing someone with a clear brief to enhance this part of their business. He has already made a start in this area by bringing titles directly from the States and instituting a notification service. I await with interest to see how this works out.

In the past, the alternative to going in to a shop was to order books from a catalogue. There have been a couple of specialist SF mail-order operations in Wellington during the last decade. These do not appear to exist any more. Bookshops in the other main centres still maintain mail-order operations, but they would seem to be declining in popularity. I suspect that the reason for this decline lies with the Internet.

There is no doubt in my mind that the book lovers sanctuary is on the World Wide Web. I will not bore you with the same old story about how the Internet has changed things so much in a short time. I am sure you already know all that.

There are two huge book selling sites on the Web and they have very similar operations. Amazon are the best known and probably do the most business. Barnes and Noble have an internet operation as an adjunct to their large American chain book store business. Both sites give you access to huge numbers of titles and review information. Both offer discounts on the already low American prices and give a variety of shipping options which trade off speed against price. I use Amazon on a regular basis and have always been generally happy with their service.

I do find these big sites frustrating at times. One reason is that there is no hands on experience. I like to go in to a store and read the back page blurb, read a few lines of text, check the paper quality and the typeface used. Of course you cannot do this on-line. The other thing that I miss is the serendipity factor. Browsing in an actual shop, there is a significant likelihood that I might happen upon a book by an author whose work is new to me. This type of chance discovery is much more limited by the organisation of the big on-line stores.

In order to get a friendlier and more interesting book buying experience on-line, I prefer to deal with Mark V Ziesing books. This site is much more like a catalogue than an on-line version of a storefront operation. But it does have a great range of strange and interesting stuff complete with idiosyncratic reviews. I have "discovered" more new authors here than any other site or vendor that I deal with. It also has the great advantage of a personal experience. The Ziesings are a very small operation - they are a two person company (Mark & Cindy Ziesing) who have no more than 1000 regular customers which means they get to know all their patrons. They are a good natured and honest operation which actually offer a price advantage over the big players. The books are not as cheap as Amazon, but their international freight costs are much lower as they only charge you the actual amount, not a flat charge per book.

One avenue of book buying I have not explored is the world of the second hand bookstore. There are a good number of these scattered around central Wellington and they provide a very valuable service to the serious book purchaser. However, this may have to be the subject of another tale.