The Nigerian bookstore as a dinosaur
Illustrative picture. PHOTO CREDIT: library.cmhlahore

It has been a busy year and my promise this holiday season was to spend as much time as possible with the family. The adorable young man of the house, I suppose like most children his age, has become almost inseparable from his digital gadgets. He had waited three months to enjoy his games because he is typically not allowed to use them during school sessions. So daily he navigated gleefully from Nintendo Switch to PS4 to 3DS to pokemon to smartphone to laptop… gosh. It was endless. Even reading books was an online affair.

Out of concern for this prolonged exposure to the screens and being fully aware that digital eye strain has both short-term and yet-to-be-known long-term effects on human vision, I suggested a visit to the bookstore on Boxing Day. Computer vision syndrome, as academics have tagged the short-term effects of digital eye strain, include sore eyes, blurred vision and headaches. I wanted these to be far from him as much as possible. My suggestion, of course, met with a not unexpected resistance.

“What is there in the bookshop that I can’t get from our online library?” the young man protested. But I insisted. So off to the bookstore we went. It was one of the so-called “upscale” bookshops and quite popular too. It’s a place I often like shopping for books and they have good physical presence in select parts of Lagos. The young man subjected almost all the books I suggested for reading to digital scrutiny. It was either he had read it or “it’s online”.

“Why do I need a hardcopy?” was the query I mostly couldn’t find answers to. But because my interest was to get him off the computer/gadget screens for a while, I insisted on buying two hardcopy books against his wish. Before leaving the bookstore, however, I struck a conversation with the proprietor, who mercifully was at the counter at the time.

I told the proprietor of how I had a hard time convincing my boy to buy hardcopy book and my concern about the future of bookstores in the country. Prior to this day, at no point did I spare a thought for this subject but now it dawned on me that the physical bookstore as we know it today may be a dinosaur and owners who fail to realize this – like the one I had a conversation with – may soon be out of business irrespective of how long they might have been around. The vague response to my inquiry about whether this particular bookstore was staying ahead of a rapidly changing world worried me a great deal.

“This dinosaur has failed to adapt and alas, it faces the danger of extinction,” I thought. But I kept my thought to myself. Experience has told me that people hardly want to hear the truth. The signs were clear enough because when I got home, I realized that they didn’t even have a functional website, talk less of an e-bookstore.

I think bookstores might survive, but like newspapers, certainly not in their present form. The digital technology threat is real. The disruption has come upon their business model too, and while the millennials and the preceding Generation X might still find solace in hardcopy intellectual materials, the same cannot be said of the Generation Z. These digital natives, who have used the Internet since they were toddlers and are comfortable with technology and social media, prefer doing their readings and performing other mental activities in the digital space. No one should expect digital natives to walk the streets, as did preceding generations, in search of a book to read.

So just to be sure, I think the physical bookstore owners face severe challenges in the not too distant future. Their ‘kodak moment’ is here and I believe that, as with newspapers, banking and some other industries, technology and the Internet have altered their businesses. This is more so for booksellers than any other category of retail.

Success is a two-edged sword. It is good and dangerous at the same time. Success signposts danger when businesses think the strategies that elevated them will keep them up there. So I suggest to my bookstore owner friend to look beyond his past success and begin to position for the future.