I recently had the pleasure of attending Foyles’ ‘bookshop of the future’ workshop. The iconic Charing Cross bookstore is about to relocate and, in so doing, create a new bookstore designed for success in the modern book-selling landscape. The workshop served to gather insight from a cross-section of the industry, to help them achieve this ambitious goal in what they hoped would be potentially disruptive ways.
Even though my own career in publishing has focused on digital media, my natural affinity for physical books and stores has remained. So much so that, on the day of the workshop, I found myself not an ambassador for Foyles’ digital frontiers, but a reactionary for digital restraint. In the no-holds-barred atmosphere that ensued, the integrity of the physical bookstore was at stake.
Of course, the traditional bookstore as we know it is certainly failing. More readers are flocking to Amazon for lower pricing, larger range, and arguably a better search experience. I admit that I haven’t bought a book from a physical bookshop in years. (Although, irreverently, I have used my phone to buy books from the Big A at least once while on bookshop premises.) If we assume that Foyles cannot compete on pricing and range, the situation is looking pretty dismal for people like me.
This is why I was not surprised that many opinions in the workshop centred around making Foyles a cultural destination: a groovy ‘place to be’, full of events, courses and cafés. After all, these are things you can’t get on Amazon. But as fun as all this would be, to me it suggests giving up altogether. It says a bookstore that’s simply a bookstore can’t work anymore.
By some measurements, these peripheral features may even make more money than books, so why shouldn’t we focus on them? But herein lies the problem, not the solution. The question is not what would make Foyles more profitable, for then Foyles should just quit and become a casino. The interesting question is, how can Foyles be more profitable as a bookstore?
The answer lies, I think, not in ‘groovifying’ Foyles (think “touchscreens everywhere, even on the walls outside the store”) – which is at most a finishing touch – but in the positive aspects of the experience of buying a book that Amazon can’t capture. Foyles has something Amazon can never have: physical depth. It is much nicer to browse through a book collection you can see and touch. This may be a good candidate for a focal point on which to reconstruct the bookshop experience.
So with that in mind, my first thought is to accept that bookstores are a browsing experience, not a searching experience. This may mean getting rid of A-Z arrangements, because they serve a purpose that Amazon serves far better. Books could instead be organised by collections, based on genre, interests, topics, current issues and ideas. Rather than collecting together ‘bestsellers’, Foyles could curate a standing collection of ‘Top 100 All-Time Must-Reads’. These could be presented in beautiful bound editions at the front, enticing you in like a perfume section, and giving new or unlikely readers an easy way in.
If the physical bookstore is the focal point, we should see the books more prominently rather than stacked up spine-to-spine. Perhaps we don’t need to see fives copies of every book, for that only serves to bloat shelves and separate individual titles. Anything that solves a practical issue for staff at the expense of making shopping less easy for customers surely deserves a rethink.
And while we’re trying to build a better browsing experience, let’s also not forget to limit the negatives that usually come with it. It may sound dull but browsing needs to be a logistical possibility too: there’s no point in beautiful shelves and reading zones if you are carrying supermarket shopping in both hands and are bursting for the loo. A bag drop and toilet facilities should go without saying.
Above all, what Amazon can’t compete with is the feeling of being in a bookstore, and the aspiration to be the kind of person who visits book shops. Adding a disco or selling stationery wouldn’t address this aspiration, but book-related accessories (why aren’t there posters for books like films?) could, with a distinctive Foyles bag in which to carry away your purchases. Even a café isn’t totally relevant, but a café where you can read the books from the shelves around you could be.
As a leader in the bookshop industry, Foyles’ success is exciting for everyone who is a lover of real bookstores and real books. But let’s remember to measure their success in relevant ways, rather than just on profit. After all, it won’t count if Foyles turn their bookstore into something that isn’t really about books.
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