In this article, I state that Polare is the quintessential canary in the coal mine, which signals again and again that this is not just about the collapse of a leading bookstore chain. This is about the future of Dutch city centers, about a knowledge economy and about the quality of Dutch culture. Although the focus is on the Netherlands, bookstores are under threat in other countries, including the U.S. I believe that this is a bad development not just for the book industry, but for culture as expressed in these stores. Below follows my complete article:
During my recent visit to Holland, where I met fellow publishers and bookstore owners to discuss developments in the book trade, naturally the situation at Polare came up. Now back in my home town New York, I keep following a steady stream of Dutch commentaries about Polare, like by author Kluun, who doesn’t consider the apparent disappearance of old-fashioned “reading books for hours and hours” a problem, or by journalist Max Pam, who says he just needs small but knowledgeable bookstores, or others who blame Polare’s management for its demise, and then the news about the Dutch publishers’ initiative to set up a streaming subscription service for e-Books. All contain some truth and value, but miss a bigger picture. Polare is the quintessential canary in the coal mine, which signals again and again that this is not just about the collapse of a leading bookstore chain. This is about the future of Dutch city centers, about a knowledge economy and about the quality of Dutch culture.
Before I continue, let me say something about my own background. I’ve been involved as founder-publisher of a specialized book publisher in New York that since its inception has been using digital technology, both on-demand printing and e-Books. Although I am a great proponent of technological innovation, I don’t believe that technology alone can solve every problem.
Let’s now return to the perfect storm Polare got into.
Let’s determine whether the external causes of Polare’s demise are structural or cyclical. First, as is well-known, the number of books sold in Holland decreased dramatically: by twenty percent from fifty million books in 2008 to forty-one million in 2013. Future will show whether this is structural or “just” temporarily caused by the economic downturn. Secondly, the advent of e-Books. Although e-Books have shown impressive growth, it only constitutes three percent of total Dutch book sales. In the U.S., e-Books take up twenty percent of the market, even though American experts believe a plateau may have been reached. I expect this to be a structural development, which will only increase its impact on the Dutch book trade. Then, there are online sales. There are no Dutch figures available on the ratio of online vs. physical book sales, but considering the growth of leading Dutch online bookstore Bol.com and others it’s inevitable that online sales will increase. In the U.S. online book sales, including e-Books, amount to forty-four percent of total U.S. book sales. Therefore, this too is a structural cause of Polare’s problems. Finally, due to the economic recession, there are over 15,000 empty retailstores in the Netherlands, most of which are in the city centers. A viscous cycle has been set in motion: there will be fewer visits to the cities and less shopping resulting in big problems for retail stores with bankruptcies of Free Record Shop, Oad, Siebel and now the latest victim Polare.
Against this backdrop, only the best managers and entrepreneurs might be able to successfully manage a chain of high-end bookstores. Clearly, Polare management has not succeeded in doing so. Whatever the exact future for the individual Polare stores, I hope that lessons will be learned. The decrease in places where books are being sold, the financial pressures on publishers and the disintegration of city centers as places for commerce and culture won’t be solved by hoping for better times or increased e-Book sales, whether or not through streaming subscription.
The bigger question is do we want a depleted society, where one is waiting at home for the next delivery of an online order or do we want a dynamic society with lively cities which act as centers of commerce, knowledge and culture? I call upon Dutch publishers, bookstores and also the local governments not only to look for technological solutions but even more to be inspired by our 16th and 17th century history, when Amsterdam was one of the most important cities in the world and the Netherlands was a center of European printing with famous cartographers and publishers such as Willem Blaeu and Jan Janssonius, and printers such as Lodewijk Elsevier and Christoffel Plantijn. Modern vision and ingenuity combined with old-fashioned Dutch mercantile spirit should be able to create a new Dutch renaissance in this 21st century with a viable future for reading and bookstores.
As an example of Dutch printing craftsmanship as well as Dutch ingenuity, view below 55 minute documentary about the famous Atlas Blaeu-van der Hem - originally published in 1649 consisting of over 46 volumes of color maps and drawings -. It has been added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage in 2003.
Below a short video about the Plantin-Moretus museum in Antwerp, Belgium. Christophe Plantin - or Christoffel Plantijn in Dutch - was a great 16th century book publisher, born in France, who set up his printing business in Antwerp, and later in 1583 worked at the newly established Leiden University - . Leiden originally in the Northern part of the Low Countries, and a possesiont of the Spanish empire, had just become part of the newly independent Dutch Republic. The Dutch Golden Age was dawning.
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