The bookstore is dead; long live the bookstore

There is a new bookstore in my neighbourhood! Looking at the statistics of book sales in the UK, it seems that there could not be a worst time to set up business selling books. But this is a different kind of bookstore…

At a time when bookstores, big and small, are struggling all over the country, someone decided to set up business selling books in my neighbourhood. More information here.

It is quite a large space and the official opening, this past weekend, offered a broad range of free events and workshops. However, I was left wondering: Have they not heard about troubled Borders? Don’t they know that bookstores are struggling for sales, in the face of competitive threats such as online bookstores (e.g., Amazon), supermarkets (e.g., Tesco) and eBooks? Have they not seen these statistics?

Figure: UK Book Sales – Retail 2005-2010
Source: Books & The Consumer (BML/TNS) – www.bookmarketing.co.uk

What makes these investors believe that they will be successful, where others are so clearly failing?

I visited the bookstore to find out. Here are some of the things that I discovered during my brief visit.

This bookstore has a café. Cafés in bookstores are not a novelty, of course. At the end of the day, Borders had a Starbucks café, too – and that did not prevent it from going bankrupt. What is different is that, here, you have cakes, etc… that you can not get anywhere else, because this place is not part of a big chain. The food looks positively delicious (the carrot cake seems to be particularly popular). And there is a very visible display telling us the chef’s name and background. The result is a feeling of connectedness that you don’t usually get in a chain café.

This bookstore also offers lots of workshops for children and adults. A quick glance at the events planned for October reveals the habitual events like arts & crafts sessions, story time or writing workshops, as well as unexpected (for me) offerings such as yoga lessons, drumming workshops, dance classes or baby massage.

The sessions are paid so they bring in additional revenue to the bookstore. But are low priced, so the cost is not a major deterrent. Most importantly, these sessions give residents a reason to visit the bookstore regularly, over and above the need to buy a book. It brings people through the doors… the first hurdle for a retailer. Obviously, the range of activities is in line with the message of the brand – Barefoot Books – which is very much about creativity and exploration, with a strong social awareness message.

Some people may say that this is not really a bookstore, anymore. But, then, is it fair to say that Starbucks is not a coffee shop, anymore? This bookstore may challenge our perception of what a bookstore is and how books are sold, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. It may just be what high-street bookstores need, really, in the face of the many challenges that they face.

It takes the emphasis away from acquiring books and focuses on the experiences of consuming the messages in those same books. Just like Starbucks’s value comes from the social exchanges around a cup of coffee rather than the drink itself.

Will this be enough to avert the decline of independent bookstores? I don’t know. What do you think?

I certainly wish this bookstore all the best and will be following their progress, closely.

6 thoughts on “The bookstore is dead; long live the bookstore

  1. Wish I lived in your neighbourhood!! I used to sell Barefoot Books (not successfully because I wanted to buy them all myself!!). They are wonderful books! I’ve been in the bad habit of buying online because it’s cheaper and usually free postage as well. But having recently discovered a great bookstore near home which also rents DVDs (mostly foreign films) I’ve been making a conscious effort to walk there and buy books and if they don’t have the book I want asking them to order it. I recently ducked out of work one lunchtime to buy a late bday present and was shocked to discover the local bookstore had closed down. This really brought home to me how much we take things for granted and how important it is to support local businesses. And there really is no substitute for whiling away some time browsing in a bookstore. Hope your new local store does well. Sounds wonderful !

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  2. Isn’t it sad, Dewi, that local stores keep closing down? A friend once said that it is really depressing when you travel somewhere only to find out the same stores / brands lining up high streets everywhere.I do agree with you that there is something really special about browsing a bookstore. But, then, I used to say the same about holding a newspaper… and, now, i am very happy to check my news online and not get newspaper ink on my hands.The other big challenge for bookstores is that you really can get a much wider selection (often at really competitive prices) online than on the high street.Thanks for stoping by, Dewi.

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  3. This book shop would be the perfect addition to Summertown – which is becoming more and more the haunt of the yummy mummy (I would not include myself in that class unfortunately!) – if it sold a wide range of titles. I love the cafe, the events and the retail space, but I was disappointed to find that it only stocked the books from Barefoot. They are lovely books, but quite pricey and niche-y and I ended up buying a book for my son across the road in Summertown Books instead! Perhaps Summertown books has nothing to fear after all – if only they could open a cafe and double the space inside?Having just got my first iPad, I find myself wondering how long it’ll be before I commit fully to e-reading. The lure of a tasty slice of homemade carrot cake is a good one though….

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  4. You are right, Katharine. The limited range is an issue for shoppers – in addition to the price, there isn’t much available for older children… But, on the other hand, it helps focus the other initiatives that they have there. The space is so beautiful, and the cakes…

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  5. I’m reading in my local paper today about a bookstore in our city which has just obtained a liquor licence in a bid to diversify their business! The store’s owner recently launched a wine bar in the store and extended the hours to cater to customers keen for a social experience in-store. I’ll be interested to see how they get on.

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