Will Britain's Bookstores Survive?

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On World Book Day, the biggest annual celebration of books and reading in the U.K. and Ireland, Scotland's The Big Issue asked if browsing in a book shop is an endangered pastime.

By Vicky Davidson

Browsing the shelves of a bookstore is unlike any other shopping experience. You step off a drab street into the dazzling embrace of shelves crammed with colour and wonder; flirtatious covers of all shapes and sizes entice you to open up your mind and take a trip into undiscovered worlds where Barack Obama and Michael Palin nestle alongside Dennis the Menace and lusty vampires.

Even at their busiest, bustling with hubbub, there's a tranquility that emanates from those whispering pages, an escape hatch for restless minds. But with the cold winds of recession blowing through the nation's high streets, Internet shopping taking a huge bite out of sales, and supermarkets sweeping up with outrageously discounted bestseller titles, can Britain's love affair with the bookstore weather the economic storm?

Graeme Neill, senior news reporter on the book industry's bible The Bookseller, thinks the forecast might not be altogether bleak. "I think the death of the bookshop has been slightly overstated," he tells The Big Issue. "It's true that high street book sales have been falling rather sharply -- by approximately seven percent in 2009.

"However, I think what the recession has done is invoke a rather bloody survival of the fittest. Competition is fierce, but successful high street chains and independents are fighting back with what makes them unique. WH Smith is fantastic at marketing books, one of Waterstone's strengths is author signings and events, and independents can really tap into their local community.

"I don't think anyone is predicting it will get any easier for the high street but I don't think we are looking at the death of the bookshop just yet."

"There's no doubt that the Internet has changed the way we shop in all areas of retail," admits Waterstone's spokesman Jon Howells. "But browsing in a good bookshop remains the best way to discover something new to read, something you might not have been expecting to find."

Already losing stalwarts such as Ottakars, high street browsers suffered a body-blow last year as Borders shut down, with the loss of 45 stores U.K.-wide -- a result greeted with little surprise within the industry. Despite hopes it could mean a silver-lining for Waterstone's in the long-term, the HMV-owned chain also suffered last year, cutting 650 jobs including that of MD Gerry Johnson who was dismissed at Christmas after reporting a 8.5 percent drop in like-for-like sales over the festive period.

At the same time, The Booksellers Association reported the biggest net closure of independent retailers since 2004, with 102 shops either closing or quitting the organisation -- criticised by small booksellers for favouring retail behemoths -- and just 40 opening across the U.K. in 2009.

It all makes for a gloomy picture, but Andrew Bentley-Steed, manager of The Edinburgh Bookshop, is "very optimistic" that independent retailers can ride it out. The shop -- in the leafy Bruntsfield area, which is the habitat of J.K. Rowling, Ian Rankin, and Alexander McCall Smith -- opened six months ago as a big brother to The Children's Bookshop 100 yards up the road, which has built up a faithful customer base since 2007.

Bentley-Steed admits he and the store's owners, Vanessa and Malcolm Robertson, were nervous about opening in the middle of a recession, but they were responding to ardent demand from grown-up customers who had been at their children's shop. "It still seemed like a risk," Bentley-Steed admits. "If you are opening an independent bookstore, you have to choose your area wisely, work out who's in the local community, who will regularly buy -- and value -- books. Of all the locations in Britain you could own a bookshop, Bruntsfield is probably the best," he notes. "And it definitely helps being in a UNESCO City of Literature."

He believes promotional overkill in major stores puts buyers off. "Many don't want big promotions and posters, they want the feeling that the books are hand-selected," insists Bentley-Steed.

But Jon Howells argues that while the average Waterstone's store stocks 35,000 titles -- up to 250,000 in their biggest branches -- the mega-chain has a human touch. "We have over 4,000 booksellers, each passionate about books and with their own opinions and areas of expertise they love to share -- you'll find loads of locally chosen and recommended books in every branch," he insists.

In recent years retailers have responded to the challenge of chilly (if convenient) Internet transactions and casual supermarket purchasing by introducing extra-curricular goodies, such as author events, now an integral part of business. As Howells points out, "it's much easier to meet your favourite writer than your favourite pop star, actor of sporting hero." Coffee shops, reading areas, and children's events are all fixtures of the modern bookshop, while Waterstone's also offers computer terminals, eBooks and eReaders.

For Valentine's Day this year, The Edinburgh Bookshop ran a literary speed-dating night, and their popular book groups, which run thrice-monthly, also act as focus groups, with staff noting what reactions various titles receive. "The trick is not to think as a business but part of the community," says Bentley-Steed. "We most frequently hear people saying our shop is like coming into someone's lounge, very relaxed, informal."

Howells says: "People are passionate about books -- what they like, what they don't like -- and there's no sign of that changing. Today there are bookshops in places that previously had none, books are available in more outlets than ever before, customers have access to great prices and range, and more choices of format than ever before: hardbacks, paperbacks, audiobooks, and eBooks."

The number of books published in the U.K. last year hit a 15-year high, with 133,224 titles being released -- up 3.2 percent on 2008. But the sales landscape has undergone a seismic shift, and with the introduction of eBooks a new phase has begun.

Globally, Amazon accounts for 19 percent of physical book sales and 90 percent of eBooks. Meanwhile, supermarket price slashing means they've trebled sales over the last five years. Asda, Sainsbury's, and Tesco sold one in every five books bought in the U.K. in 2009. But booksellers maintain that browsing the shelves is a sensory encounter that no soulless supermarket or web session can match.

"When you pick up a book it's an artistic experience," points out Bentley-Steed. "It's old technology, more than 500 years old, and it's lasted so long because it works. It's a very private experience. All the feedback I get from customers is, 'I like the feel of paper, I like the smell of bookshops, I like the sound a hardback makes when you crack it open.'"

Graeme Neill believes the consumer could win out in the end: "If the book trade is forced to improve, to put on more dynamic events, have beautifully designed bookshops or enthusiastic staff handselling books, that can only be a good thing."

This article was originally published in issue 774 (March 1 - 7, 2010) of The Big Issue in Scotland. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.