Mac’s braces for ebooks

Will ebooks kill Mac's Fireweed Books, a venerable store that's served Whitehorse readers for more than a half-century? Not if owner Chris Sorg can help it. But he acknowledges the book industry is in a time of turmoil.

Will ebooks kill Mac’s Fireweed Books, a venerable store that’s served Whitehorse readers for more than a half-century?

Not if owner Chris Sorg can help it. But he acknowledges the book industry is in a time of turmoil.

Recently, Amazon sold more electronic than paper copies.

Some Kindle-toting technophiles are already delivering eulogies for the dead-tree edition of books. Sorg isn’t so sure.

“We’re not falling off a cliff,” he said. “There’s just going to be a gradual decline in the sale of books, and we’re going to have to adapt.”

The big fear is that bookstores could go the way of music stores, many of which were wiped out when customers abandoned CDs in favour of downloadable files.

Book sales have slumped at Mac’s by 15 per cent over five years, said Sorg. And, as he admits, “we don’t really know where we’re headed with it.

“Obviously, there are a lot of changes in the industry. There’s a move towards digital content in a big way.”

Electronic books have been available since the mid-1990s. “But last year it really started to accelerate,” said Sorg. “In the long run, it has to have a dampening effect.”

But Sorg sees a future for Mac’s, which may be luckier than many other independent bookstores.

To start, it has an enviable location, on the busiest block of Main Street. That ensures the store continues to see plenty of traffic.

It still enjoys a healthy trade in Yukon books, many of which are sold to tourists. Electronic books may boast advantages over paper ones, but they make poor souvenirs, so visitors will likely continue to seek out paper copies.

And Whitehorse, with one of the highest proportions of degree-holding residents in Canada, “is a good reader’s market,” said Sorg.

Magazine sales haven’t fared too badly. They’re down by approximately five per cent from five years ago, said Sorg.

That’s not shabby, considering that, in the past decade, or so, Walmart has entered the market. Sorg reckons they sell as many magazines as he does, which means the total magazine market has grown over that period.

And Mac’s enjoys the support of a loyal customer base.

“If Mac’s were to close down, I think it would be a huge shock to the community,” said Sorg. “I don’t think we’re anywhere close to that.

“It would be a shame for us to not have an independent bookstore.”

Changes are already underway at Mac’s. In recent weeks, it has revamped its downstairs, which used to hold a hodgepodge of special orders, topography maps and the travel, business, history and science sections.

Most customers never ventured downstairs. So those books have moved above ground.

To make room, several small sections – such as Christian and computer books – had to go.

The basement is now full of discount books, shipped up by the pallet by distributors. “We’re calling that our bargain basement now,” said Sorg.

“We’re trying to save people some money on good titles.”

Mac’s has also reduced its summer hours. For nearly a decade until now, they had remained open until midnight. Now they close at 10 p.m.

But the store still plans to remain open every day of the year, including holidays. “It’s a tradition that goes back, I don’t know how long,” said Sorg. He bought the business in 1995.

“I’m just the last custodian of the business. It’s an institution in Whitehorse. I think a lot of people feel that way about it.”

Sorg calls the reduced hours “a little trimming on the expense side.” He’s wary of reducing them dramatically, lest the store fall into “the death spiral,” in which “you start cutting, and you’re just killing yourself.”

Sorg also hopes to one day profit from selling ebooks. But just how remains unclear.

Independent bookstores hope to act as brokers for the sale of electronic copies. Sorg and other sellers are in talks with publishers about this.

But for it to work, bookstores would need to offer an additional enticement to customers. Otherwise, everyone would simply download at home from Amazon, Apple or another big online retailer.

But if local bookstores could buy ebooks at wholesale prices, they could sell at a steeper discount than their competition, said Sorg. Or they could bundle the sale with other inducements.

In the book business, things could get worse before they get better. At present, online retailers are trying to charge nearly full-price for ebooks. Sorg suspects this is slowing the switch to electronic readers.

Once Apple priced electronic songs at 99 cents, sales boomed. Sorg expects the same to happen to ebooks when their prices drop.

Some national bookstore chains have tried to offset slumping book sales by slinging speciality coffee and selling home decor supplies. Don’t expect Mac’s to do the same.

“We have Starbucks two doors down,” he said. Besides, to sell other stuff, “you would need to start downsizing the book sections.”

And that would erode what Mac’s has going for it.

Sorg doesn’t buy the books for the store any more. But, when he did, he always tried to pick an eclectic mix – books that he didn’t have “a good handle on who would be buying.” The current buyer continues in a similar spirit.

The result is serendipity. Walk the aisles of any well-stocked bookstore, like Mac’s, and you’ll likely encounter books you wouldn’t otherwise have thought of picking out online.

“To make that experience worth doing, Mac’s needs the floor space it has right now.”

There’s another thing Sorg won’t do.

“I’m not going to grovel to our customers,” he said. “We need to provide the best service and the best business proposal.

“I’m not going to be whining that the world’s changed. That’s the way the world is. If you expect things to stay the same, you shouldn’t even get in the game.”

Contact John Thompson at