Very few people would describe buying books online as an ‘experience’, in contrast, there is a magic about stepping into a bookshop that bricks and mortar booksellers should capitalize on to ensure their survival.
Next time you are in a bookshop, take a moment to look around you (unless it is at the height of a Christmas shopping frenzy), and you will see a calmness, a sedateness, that just doesn’t happen in other retail environments. I have two young children and most of our high street shopping is undertaken at breakneck speed, in an effort to get out of town as quickly as possible. This is not the case when we go into a bookshop. We take our time, we look around, we excitedly show each other the treasures we have found, and, on more than one occasion, we have been late back to the car as time just drifted by.
This is the magic of a good bookshop. These are very challenging times for booksellers and those that are thriving are working hard to create an environment that people want to spend time in.
Anne Sebba, chair of the Society of Authors, agrees that bookshops have to look to offer something that enhances a visit to the bookshop.
“Bookshops have to be gift shops, perhaps have coffee bars. Bookshops have to turn themselves into an experience,” said Anne.
“Going in to a bookshop has to be a positive experience. They have to offer something that you can’t get online. There is nothing quite like the joy of watching a child in a bookshop as they discover that turning the pages is a really exciting thing. We will be impoverished as a society if we lose that as an experience.”
Gone are the days when the only place to buy books was from a high street bookshop, where bookshops jammed shelves into every available space in an attempt to meet a wide range of customer needs. As a result, many bookshops are taking the brave decision to remove some of their shelving in the desire to create a more appealing environment. My own local Waterstones is testament to this. In removing some of the floor-standing shelving the store has lost that slightly-claustrophobic, maze-like quality to be replaced with an open, comfortable space that encourages a natural meandering throughout the shop.
But bookshops need to look beyond the physical environment in creating inviting spaces for people. Nic Bottomley, owner the award-winning Mr B’s Reading Emporium, in Bath, knew from the outset that they wanted to do things differently and in a fresh way.
Nic said: “We hope to offer a space in which being a book geek is seen as a good thing, where books are up for discussion and are at the centre of everything.”
It was important for Mr B’s to be a beautiful physical space, but the team found that the things they spent time on to enhance the experience of visiting the bookshop really struck a chord with their customers.
“We found, to our pleasant surprise, that the more things we did differently, and the more small calculated risks we took in how we did things, more people were coming through our doors, and that gave us the confidence to keep adding to the odd things that we did, and to be more esoteric in our approach.”
Mr B’s has a very hands-on approach to bookselling including introducing Mr B’s Reading Spa, where customers can book one-on-one time with one of their booksellers who will suggest a range of titles based of the personal reading tastes of the customer. This personal style of bookselling has paid dividends for the bookshop.
Nic said: “We have created a place that the people of Bath, and regular visitors of Bath, really enjoying spending time in, and as a side-effect spending money in, but it’s somewhere that people feel extremely passionate about and that’s our key success.
“I think everyone needs to think about what they can do that helps sell the experience of buying a book. By doing that, by offering something that’s a little bit different, and by creating a beautiful shop where everyone is welcome, it will help you compete with online sales. It’s about high street versus non-high street.”
Bookshops need to look at selling the unique experience they can offer in the battle to remain on our high streets.