(taken from the February 27th, 2013 issue of The Economist)
THE digital onslaught of e-books and Amazon-style e-tailers have put bookstores in an existential predicament. Digital books are expected to outsell print titles by 2015 in Britain, says Sam Hancock, digital product manager at HarperCollins, and even sooner in America. With the demise of HMV, that music-peddling stalwart, still fresh in everyone's minds, bricks-and-mortar bookstores appear to be on borrowed time. So, what is the future of the bookstore?
This was the burning questions on everyone's lips at a recent event at Foyles's flagship bookshop on Charing Cross Road in London, where some of Britain's leading literary agents, authors, marketing managers and booksellers gathered to discuss its fate ahead of the bookseller’s move from its current rambling premises to the former home of Central Saint Martin’s art school just up the road.
For a bookstore to remain successful, it must improve “the experience of buying books,” says Alex Lifschutz, an architect whose London-based practice is designing the new Foyles. He suggests an array of approaches: “small, quiet spaces cocooned with books; larger spaces where one can dwell and read; other larger but still intimate spaces where one can hear talks from authors about books, literature, science, travel and cookery." The atmosphere is vital, he adds. Exteriors must buzz with activity, entrances must be full of eye-catching presentations and a bar and café is essential.
The trend for not only incorporating cafés in bookstores but also placing them on the top floor makes good sense. The new Foyles will have one, Mr Lifschutz explains, because this draws shoppers upwards floor-by-floor, which is bound to encourage people to linger longer and spend more. (Top-floor restaurants in department stores abide by similar principles.)
There are plenty of ways to delight the bookstore customer, but few are easily monetised. The consensus is that bookstores need to become cultural destinations where people are prepared to pay good money to hear a concert, see a film or attend a talk. The programming will have to be intelligent and the space comfortable. Given how common it is for shoppers to browse in shops only to buy online later, some wonder whether it makes sense to charge people for the privilege. Victoria Barnsley, head of HarperCollins, thinks it might be a good idea. She cited similar experiments among clothing retailers to charge customers for trying on merchandise. (Only 35% of fiction in Britain is bought in a physical store, says Ms Barnsley.)
But forcing people to pay for the privilege of potentially paying for goods could deter shoppers altogether. A more attractive idea might be a membership scheme like those offered by museums and other cultural venues. Unlike reward cards, which offer discounts and other nominal benefits, a club membership could provide priority access to events (talks, literary workshops, retreats) and a private lounge where members can eat, drink and meet authors before events. Different memberships could tailor to the needs of children and students.
To survive and thrive, bookstores should celebrate the book in all its forms: rare, second-hand, digital, self-printed and so on. Digital and hybrid readers should have the option of buying e-books in-store, and budding authors should have access to self-printing book machines. The latter have been slower to take off in Britain, but in America bookstores are finding them to be an important source of revenue. “The quality is now almost identical to that of a book printed by a major publishing house,” says Bradley Graham, owner of a leading independent bookstore in Washington, DC, called Politics & Prose. His shop leases an Espresso Book Machine and makes it available to customers.
The bookstore of the future will have to work hard. Service will be knowledgeable and personalised, the inventory expertly selected, spaces well-designed and the cultural events enticing. Whether book stores, especially small independents are up to the challenge, is not clear. The fate of these stores is a cliff-hanger.