Sign in Castlemaine bookshop Soldier and Scholar prompts debate about the value of browsing for books

The sign at Soldier and Scholar Bookshop, in Castlemaine. Picture: MARK KEARNEY
The sign at Soldier and Scholar Bookshop, in Castlemaine. Picture: MARK KEARNEY

A SIGN in a central Victorian bookshop has sparked a debate about the value of browsing.

“Please come in if you want to buy a book,” the sign reads.

“But please have pity on us if you are the hundredth person today to say, ‘I’m just having a sticky beak’, or ‘I’m waiting for my dinner next door,’ ‘We’re just wandering,’ or ‘I’m only looking’.

“Browsing is fine if you are really looking for a book to buy… but we can’t exist if you never buy a book for us or you are looking for books that you already know are not for sale in Australia.”

Joyce Sanders, of Soldier and Scholar Bookshop in Castlemaine, said she erected the sign during the first school holidays this year.

She was prompted by families that would stand outside the door instructing the children not to nag for a book once they got inside because they were “just browsing”.

“School holidays are a nightmare,” Ms Sanders said.

“Hundreds of people come through and move books about, but buy nothing in a bookshop.”

People would not behave in the same manner at the cafe or the optometrist on either side of the store, Ms Sanders believed. 

“So why do they believe that a bookshop should welcome their lack of contribution of any kind? How can a bookshop make a living on that?” she said.

“Bookshops are the most marginal businesses of all retail shops. They just can’t afford to be treated like some public attraction to which no one is making a donation.”

There is a tin on the desk for those who were not interested in buying, but might wish to make a donation to support bookshops.

“I don’t get too many takers for that,” Ms Sanders said. 

Castlemaine boasts a number of bookshops. 

Bookseller Susan Green of Stoneman’s Bookroom, about 500 metres from Soldier and Scholar, said the town was home to some avid readers. 

The bookshops were also popular with tourists, and a resident had gone so far as to create a district book trail.

Ms Green said browsing was welcome at her workplace. 

“That’s how people learn about books,” she said. 

By browsing, she said people were educating themselves about what was available and what else they might like to read. 

“They might find something they like” Ms Green said. 

Or they might resist the urge to buy on that occasion. But a pleasant experience would make it more likely people would return, Ms Green said. 

“We really do try to be a welcoming bookshop and get to know what they like,” she said.

As an ex-librarian, Ms Sanders said her passion was finding books for people.

“I start by asking them what they are looking for, and real book customers are always looking for something, even if they want to browse for a book to take on an airplane next week,” she said.

“That’s the kind of browsing that we always welcome.”

While she said only the person walking in the door really knew what their intention was, she had found a difference in the responses of prospective customers and browsers.

“If they have no intention of buying a book, and can’t even offer a possible area of interest to which I can direct them, they often get really angry if I say we don’t really welcome that kind of browsing,” Ms Sanders said.

“I usually repeat that I would really like to help them find something, but by then they have usually stormed out. I know I have made some young men very angry.”

The sign at Soldier and Scholar’s entrance might raise eyebrows in Australia, but Ms Sanders said she often thought of specialist bookshops in the United Kingdom that kept their front doors locked.

Potential customers had to ring a doorbell to ask for entry.

“That is a step further along,” Ms Sanders said.

“I honestly don’t wish to keep people out who are really wanting to browse to find a book, but the other type of browsing/wandering/killing time/sticky beaking/checking it is just so very tiring when you’d rather be spending your time talking to people about books and helping find their favourites.”

Garry Murray, of Bendigo rare and out-of-print secondhand bookseller Book Now, said he would be happy if people stayed in the store all day. 

“I just like having people around the shop,” he said.

“There’s nothing worse than an empty shop.”

In fact, Mr Murray said he preferred browsers to people who were looking for something specific. 

While he might not have a particular book in stock, there might be something in the 50,000 or so books in the store that appealed to a customer’s general interests. 

Though Ms Sanders said was aware Soldier and Scholar has gained a reputation for “banning browsing for books”, she questioned whether it was to the store’s disadvantage.

“Probably the people who are spreading that idea around are the people who would not be buying books anyway, so I don’t think there is any loss there,” she said. 

“There might even be a gain since most bookshops lose about 10 per cent of their stock in theft, and perhaps we have inadvertently turned away some of those people.”