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Posted by Tom, February 12, 2013

What should bookshops be?

Later this year, the independent book chain Foyles will move their flagship store from its current location on Charing Cross Road to a new, purpose-built bookshop build on the site of the former premises of Central St Martins School of Art. In preparation for the move, Foyles are holding a series of workshops – called “Future Foyles” – with publishers, agents, booksellers, members of the trade and interested punters in attendance, and with the aim of producing some ideas about what the new store should “be”. You can read The Bookseller’s report of the first workshop here.

I think the project is an excellent one, not least because, in order to compete with Amazon – who will always be able to offer lower prices, particularly if they’re not under pressure to make a profit, and are focussed, instead, on building market share – bookshops need to be just as innovative in offering other things. Their core, irreplacable strengths – the things that Internet shopping can’t replicate – are things that Foyles already “do” very well: knowledgeable staff, an enjoyable, physical browsing experience, and thoughtful, intelligent content curation that’s based on human experience rather than algorithms.

But if those aspects are merely necessary – but not sufficient – what should come next? How should bookshops “evolve” to cope with the increasing pressures of online retail’s low prices and e-offerings, a concomitant shift away from high street shopping, and economic downturn? I was intrigued by HarperCollins CEO Victoria Barnsley’s suggestion to BBC Radio4 that bookshops could consider levying a browsing fee upon customers, though judging from Foyles’ CEO Sam Husain’s distinctly measured response – “It is a fairly challenging thought to take on board, but really, it is ideas like that we want to think about and have to brainstorm” – it’s probably a touch more left-field than he had in mind.

The Bookseller reports that one person in attendance at yesterday’s event, Matt Finch, a freelance community outreach consultant, was interested “in how the future Foyles could appeal to people as a cultural space”, which strikes me as another of the things that the book chain has begun to do really well (last year they held events related to plays, visual art exhibitions, concerts, and more) and could expand upon easily with a dedicated space. It’s something that Rebecca Smart of the Osprey Group spoke about at Digital Book World, linking up ideas around the challenges to bookshops specifically, a Mary Portas-style vision of a revived town centre, and the closure of libraries.

I’ll be particularly interested to see how Foyles treat the children’s section of the new store, which perhaps more than any other area has the potential to be something truly imaginative and wonderful.

When I think about my favourite book shops, the elements that immediately stand out are their beauty (which can be harder to achieve for a chain – though Apple Stores often succeed), friendliness, and a more intangible quality; atmosphere – the best bookshops exude a quiet sense of calm that no other sort of shop can equal. I’m not at all averse to bookshops with cafes attached to them, but I say why stop there – why not a wine bar, or really decent food?

What do you look for in a good bookshop? How do you think current stores could improve their children’s sections? And what would you like to see in Foyles’ new headquarters? If you’d like to participate in the Future Foyles events, they’re free to anyone who’d like to attend – you can find out more here.

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