Friday, January 04, 2013

The bookshop of the future

Foyles of Charing Cross Road, one of Britain's most famous bookshops, is moving premises this year, though only up the road.  It has weathered the recession and Amazon's chill winds by promoting its own on-line ebook sales, but the management has decided moving will give it a chance to get ahead by designing 'the bookshop of the future.'

There will be a series of workshops in February with customers and industry experts invited to discuss and design what the new shop should feature; topics include the decline of the physical book and the rise of ebooks, the cultural importance of the bookstore and the role of the specialist shop.

There will be a lot of lesser bookshops, poised on the edge of a cliff that seems to be crumbling daily, waiting in hope that something may come of this that could help reverse the trend that saw 400 British bookshops close in 2012.

In the cities there will always be niche areas where a wealthy clientele is prepared to pay for personal service and the pleasure of well-stocked shelves of interesting, and not merely popular books, but the vulnerable bookshops are the ones in small towns.  If a major supermarket opens nearby  - or even a large charity secondhand shop - : they are doomed: they lose not only their paperback sales but the hardback Christmas sales which were always an important boost.  If a hardback is available half-price along the road, the public isn't going to fork out an extra tenner to make sure the friendly neighbourhood bookshop is still there next year.

Remoter areas, oddly enough, seem to fare better.  One of the most successful bookshops I know is in a Highland village where it is quite simply the hub of the community.  It has a gallery for art exhibitions that can be used for events and local meetings.  It has a cafe doing light lunches, story-telling afternoons for children, book groups for adults.  They promote books with local interest that might otherwise go unnoticed and when they have an author event we are all more than happy to brave the journey across the moors.  They work flat out, and they sell our books for us.

The bookshops of my childhood were a place of enchantment for me- hushed, ordered, with all these beautiful pristine volumes that had the delicious smell new books have and you didn't talk loudly there any more than you did in the library.  I wouldn't have wanted a coffee shop with cups clinking and constant chatter or other noisy children being read to, but then I was a bookish child.  One of my most vivid memories of our local bookshop was the day I discovered that The Secret Garden, which I had seen as a TV serial and mourned inconsolably after it finished, was actually a BOOK that I could read again and again.  (Still do, in fact.) Unbelievable joy.

But that wouldn't do for today's children, used to commanding repeats with the click of a button - or for modern adults..  Perhaps the shops should have enticing new technology to draw them in,: a place to screen trailers for books as they do for films?   Perhaps, given that everyone nowadays wants to write a book, there should be a writer-in-residence doing workshops - or even, given the number of times an author is asked 'How do you write?'  just sitting at a computer getting on with it, the way potters demonstrate throwing pots on a wheel?

And perhaps, for people like me, they might develop a synthetic 'essence of new books' which they could spray into some quiet corner where there would be nothing going on to interrupt the silent lure of the shelves.

What is your vision?  I'd love to hear it.


j welling said...

A shop with books and a staff knowledgeable enough to help me find something I might need or enjoy seems to be the "bookstore of the future."

They're bloody rare now.

I live near where the demise of the evil giant Borders came to pass. A few years earlier, I had lived near another college town that saw its independents fall (or give up early) when the evil Borders store came to town.

Oddly, one delightful independent survived selling - gasp - books. How ? It was a full service store. It was staffed by people who read the books. If you asked "I'm looking for a book with that depressed guy from Sweden who had the farm murder about foreigners ..." they'd know. Mankell. The store : The Raven.

I used to be able to walk into the history section of a bookstore and ask about first person accounts by WWII pilots and hear of Galland or Johnnie Johnson or Sakai.

Today, no such luck.

The staff at the last store I visited did not know Bram Stoker as the author of _Dracula_ or anything else. I left without buying anything. Woe to the owner.

I suspect we will see a return of service as a differentiation of customer experience. There will be a price and that price will not be paid by individuals who make price their most important criteria for anything.

However, to enjoy the advice of someone who can answer those odd bookstore questions (do you have any fun sea stories without pirates or a lesson of personal triumph ?) I will be going to a full service store of the future.

I buy fly fishing gear in much the same way. I spend tons of money on it and - rather as we see in books - the goods themselves have nearly passed from popular availability. You cannot buy a fly rod in the local hardware store ( or Lowe's should you not have a hardware store any more).

There are however more fly fishers today than at any time in history. We tend to shop where we get meaningful service and advice.

Rick Blechta said...

Aline, I like the way they're thinking. Bookstores have to look at reinventing themselves if they're going to succeed.

Aline Templeton said...

I'm ashamed to say I once went into my local Waterstone's and said to the assistant, 'I am the nightmare client. I want a book that just came out about century naval warfare but I can't remember the name or the title.' Her eyse lit up and she found it for me - there are still some left who care in the chains. Not many, though.

Charlotte Hinger said...

We have a terrific bookstore down the street from me. It had to make some crucial decisions to stay in business. They expanded their coffee shop, author signings, and personal service.

A bookstores of the future should be eager not annoyed by special orders.