Saturday, November 26, 2011

Does the Fate of Bookshops Rest on the Fate of Books?

Recently, I went to Berwick St in Soho with a DJ friend of mine who was in London for a few days. Once hailed as having the greatest concentration of record shops in Britain – back in the 1990s Berwick St had more than 20 independent stores – the strip was even celebrated on the cover of an album by Oasis. But, when I visited a few months ago, the scene was a far cry from those ‘glory’ days.

A scant few audiophiles sifted through overflowing racks of secondhand records and CDs. Signs advertised albums for 10p. I politely flicked through bent cardboard and cracked plastic, feigning interest while my friend searched for any loot he might strip from the wreckage. It took me only a few minutes to abandon any interest.

I was struck by how relatively quickly the concept of “browsing” had moved from shelf to screen. Through no fault of its own, this record store had become a room full of junk. While I waited for my friend I asked the assistant for his predictions on the future. “It won't be long before all these places around here will be replaced by a string of coffee shops."

This struck a particular chord with me because only a few days earlier the research partner I have been working with here in the UK, if:Book, announced its plans to transform a project we’d been working on together, an experimental community based bookshop, into – you guessed it – a coffee shop.

Well, not just a coffee shop, but an experiment in finding new ways to attract people to visit spaces where, for a modest expenditure they can enjoy a variety of reading experiences. In this case it happens to be a rather unpretentious café above the local library. Here there’s lots of light, some large tables to work or read and wifi. There’s also a wall of books for sale (a mix of big name and local self published products), and community noticeboards which advertise, amongst other things, courses in digital literacy, book making and creative writing. So, it’s not just a coffee shop but a literary social space.

If Berwick St left me wondering: are bookshops – spaces easily as beloved by their public as record stores once were – eventually to suffer a similar fate? The ifBook experiment ‘cafe/bookshop in the library’ made me speculate on whether this might be a possible solution.

In his book Last Shop Standing: Whatever Happened to Record Shops? Graham Jones attributes the closure of independent stores to the new market landscape in which record companies put online retailers and supermarkets ahead of independent outfits. But corporate greed and agglomeration are only one side of the story: customers have turned away from traditional shopping experiences in favour of online services. Even the local video rental store has now vanished from our streets because of these changes in consumer behavior.

When we talk about the current challenges facing bookshops, there is implicit in this a concern that what such struggles really demonstrate is that books are becoming less relevant in our everyday lives. But is this necessarily the reality?

Research I’ve been working on rather gamely claims to consider what might happen in ‘the bookshop of the future’ and many of these blog musing draw upon the qualitative research I’ve conducted over the past 6 months with seven small, independent London-based book retailers and their customers. Based on what I’ve learned through these conversations and observations I want to propose that, contrary to logic, a bookshop, even without (many) books on the shelves really can be more than ‘just a room’? to its customers.

The idea that bookshops have important symbolic value as well as a commercial role is evident in any analysis of popular media. In books and films the bookshop also regularly features as site for charming and whimsical personal encounters (think of 84 Charring Cross Rd, or films such as You’ve Got Mail or Notting Hill). Bookshops are rather like holidays, not only because they are associated with relaxation and escape but because, as with taking a holiday, what we value most of all about them are the affective associations they engender. Bookshops are spaces for their patrons’ fantasies about their preferred engagements with their preferred kinds of literature. They evoke feelings. This being the case the idea of the bookshop is arguably more valued than the actual store on any particular street corner.

This popular discourse contributes to consumer opinion on the value of bricks and mortar book stores. And so, even as sales of iPads and Kindles grow every year, and more customers turn to online shopping, bookshops are as beloved (if less patronized) as ever. In Laura Miller’s study of American independent bookshops she reflects on the cultural value that attends the work of the bookseller, suggesting that “in the valorization of the work of the bookseller there is a clear sense that books are exceptionally moral objects deserving of protection from [destructive] forces.”

This is why the loss of our bookshops is greeted with even more concern and scandalized outrage than the disappearance of retailers such as record stores or other high street retailers because access to books is understood to contribute so much to a healthy society.

Miller observes that independent stores have worked hard to harness the sense of community and being ‘in touch’ that customers anticipate, using this to set them apart from their conglomerate competition. These activities allow small, local stores to account for their undiscounted prices, and also give customers that much desired sense of being ‘in touch’.

But, however nice it is to have a ‘sense of community’ this doesn’t address the realities of our daily habits. I have no doubt that you and I both support the notion of community, we both value the democracy engendered by literacy, we both want local small businesses and local artists to succeed. We both like nice coffee. We both also buy books online. I myself admit that I do almost all of my book purchasing online — partly these are ebooks for the ease of travel and research, but also because printed books cost a lot of money. Customers I spoke to expressed similar sentiments. They enjoyed browsing but often returned home to buy a book online at a discount. Or download it.

There is unquestionable convenience to the online system, but also, some new pleasures. Customers I spoke with told me of the value of the internet as a research tool for reading, of the pleasure and positive feeling of finding out about books via online networks. Here’s a typical comment: “I confess I get most of my recommendations for reading these days via things my friends post online; on Facebook, or Twitter, whatever. Maybe it’s a link to a book review of something new and I think, oh yeah, that looks interesting…Before I know it, it’s on its way to my house.”

It’s not just that interesting things aren’t happening inside small bookshops, but these days much of it isn’t traditional book buying and selling.

In the sites where I’ve been conducting field work I’ve noticed some small but significant changes. The internet and digital social networks are being used not just to link people with common allegiances who are geographically distant but also proximate. Several of the stores I work with understand that the majority of their online network is locally based and tailor their digital identity to reflect this. So for instance, one store I visited maintained a popular Twitter identity that kept followers up to date with day-to-day activities in store, from the boredom of the daily commute, to frustrations ordering stock or indecision about lunchtime sandwich selections. Even if you’re not in-store it’s easy to keep up to date with the daily life of the bookshop. This store recognized that it wasn’t reading books or critique of books that suited social networks, but being around them in a very quotidian way that was the key. This same store also manages a slate of after-hour events that have almost nothing to do with books (quiz nights, sewing classes, music, comedy and most recently even an Avon evening). These cases illustrate how the old idea of community support and being ‘in touch’ can match with the immediacy and novelty of digital networks.

As definitions of “reading” and “readers” have expanded with digital communications its very like that the bookstore’s ideal customer might not even be someone who would describe themselves as having that traditional “passion for books.” Yet, they find their social and cultural tastes and allegiances well catered to by the store and its wider network. These are the book store’s new potential customers.

Bookstores need to take greater account of this change, emphasizing their role as social spaces for people, rather than store houses for stock. The bookstore’s continued ability to generate affection, even among those of us whose actions end up undermining it, perhaps speaks less to our love of books and reading and more to our desire to feel ‘in touch’ with our local environment, via the symbolic value books and bookshops represent. Bookshops need to give people ways to connect online and reasons to leave the house that don’t rely solely on the sale of their primary product. To survive, bookshops need to do something many record stores did not, that is, reinvent themselves as physical destinations within a broader network for reading, rather than being only in the business of book selling.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

3Cs Workshop: Create, Curate, Consume

One very interesting strand of discussion at our recent workshop related to the change that digital culture has had on our ways of thinking about participation in culture.

To put it very simply, the internet has reshaped our expectations about who gets involved, where and how. At the workshop my attention was directed to a recent lecture given to the British Council by the journalist Ben Hammersley. You can read a transcript or watch a video here. Hammersley explains the way that the internet is shaping the thinking of younger people. It’s a change in thinking he typifies as the difference between a network and a hierarchy. I won’t go into detail explaining what Ben explains very well in his lecture – here I want to reflect on how we might think about how making books and selling them can fit into this new network model…

From my perspective this notion of hierarchies vs networks is very useful for understanding what has changed for readers (and consumers) of books. Once, bookstores were heirarchical places where many people didn’t dare to enter lest they be looked down their noses at by a stiff-looking shop owner who had organised the store (or not organised the store, as the case may be) to suit themselves. Book shopping for most of the 20th century could be an alienating business. Many people just gave up. Would rather buy a book at a news agent or a train station or (later) a supermarket to avoid the discomfort of an antisocial exchange.

This is not so today in a culture increasingly organised according to the network model. Networks not only encourage but necessitate participation from a diverse population. You can’t actually engage with Facebook, for instance, unless you understand that you need to be connected to others. The experience of buying a book today is nothing but networked. Of course, there’s the obvious stuff – buying books online via Amazon and Book Depository… These are networks for books, certainly. But a networked bookstore doesn’t mean an online store. Many online stores are not very well networked at all, or at least, networked in only the most simple ways. Arguably there are much more interesting examples of how books are used, bought, sold and made according to the network experience.

Ironically, I think some of the better, earlier examples of a networked bookstore were actually the big bricks-and-mortar chain stores like (the now defunct) Borders. These stores were a real revolution for consumers in the 80s and 90s because they broke down the hierarchical model for buying books. With their open plan and huge range they made browsing shelves a pleasure. This produced a set of ‘accidental networks’ as browsers zig-zagged around large stores for hours following the associative networks of their shopping fancies (e.g. you find a new book or an author because you’re looking for another and discover it shelved nearby, or because one thought leads to another which reminds you of a long forgotten title you’ve always been meaning to read, etc etc)

More than these accidental networks, the big chain stores really hit it big by encouraging physical networks inside their walls. The introduction of coffee shops encouraged customers to sit down and hang out for a while. They reversed the expectation that booksellers were snooty and intimidating; they broke down the hierarchies that made readers and browsers feel insecure about their interests and opinions. These stores made people relax by offering them other nice experiences to complement their browsing, particularly coffee shops. In the café people could enjoy the atmosphere of books, make a small investment (the price of a cup of coffee), and then move on with the rest of their day. The bookstore was an ambient place where experience could be absorbed, not spoonfed.

Of course, as the internet proliferated across the world and online retail became legitimate and popular the consumer value system changed. Consumers reassessed their motivations for entering a bookstore. Many books were easier and cheaper to obtain online. Both the network and the value system underpinning it changed. The social and ambient aspects that made the big chain bookstores pleasant were being well satisfied in other locations (in real life and also online). The big bookstores lost the allegiance of their network of customers in deference to the economic hierarchies (and we can see now where that has got them). To quote Ben Hammersley, the glue that holds individuals together across the network is “interest, it’s belief, it’s cultural allegiance.
 And those cultural allegiances can be anything from religion or hard-core politics down to the fact that you and I really like vampire novels and those lot don’t. Or we are Star Wars and they are Star Trek. […] We increasingly find that our allegiance – our social allegiances, our political allegiances – are to people who are likeminded but nowhere near us.”

This is certainly true, but I want to stress the point here that these networks are equally effective and important in creating allegiances closer to home. And indeed, more and more the internet and digital social networks are being used not just to link people with common allegiances who are geographically distant but also proximate. In the small bookshops where I’ve been conducting field work I’ve noticed this happening in almost all cases. Using online networks, these stores involve customers in their community even while they’re not in the shop. This might just be via news updates on Facebook or Twitter, but it also involves more experimental forms of networking: managing events in the store after hours (not necessarily book launches, but quiz nights, sewing classes, music or comedy performances – stuff that has virtually nothing to do with books and how to flog them). The motivation here is to cater to the drives of the network that supports them. Today, a customer at a small independent bookstore needn’t necessarily even be someone who’d identify themselves as a great reader. Instead they find their social and cultural allegiances well catered to by the store and its wider network. Bookstores, it turns out, may not be about books at all…

The bookshop is an ideal place to explore networks because at heart they represent not a place to buy books but a place for engagement. In 1960 an American sociologist Edward Shills said of the bookshop, it is a “place for intellectual conviviality, and it has the same value as conversation, not as a “civilized art” but as a necessary part of the habitat of a lively intelligence in touch with the world.” Being in touch with the world now very often takes place via the internet but theres no reason for bookshops not to continue to involve themselves in the conviviality and conversation of these modern networks. Bookshops can be one place (in actual geographic place and also digitally) that nurture the social and cultural networks facilitated by life after the internet.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Pop ups and downfalls

A few bits and pieces of relevant bookshop news turned up over the last few days -

Here's a pop up project happening in New York in autumn that is trying to engage with the idea of giving public space a literary quality. The Uni project is a portable space based on a system of cubes. The books inside the cubes are only the beginning of the concept. Partly a library, the project will act as a venue for readings, talks, workshops and screenings - all organised in partnership with various local organisations. Because it's lightweight and portable it can be moved around to suit the location and the requirements. Have a look at the website to see how the Uni project can function and you'll see how the same principle would work for a pop up bookshop.
The Australian website Crikey also had a couple of very interesting articles over the weekend addressing the demise of the bookshop in Australia. First was Matthia Dempsey's essay (reprinted/revised from a version originally published in Kill Your Darlings) about the consumer's obligation to shop responsibly. This is a subject I'm going to be writing about in more depth very soon - Are book consumers going to take on ethical purchasing practices in the same way that we have embraced other responsible consumer practices like fair trade, free range and so on? It certainly seems as if book sellers think so. The Melbourne newspaper The Age ran this story about the news of an Australian/New Zealand version of the original US 'Indie Bound' scheme that encourages shoppers to use local independent retailers.

The other piece that caught my eye addressed the downfall of the REDgroup (who were owners of Borders in Australia and the local Australian book retailer Angus and Robertson). Perhaps the most interesting outcome of the disintegration of these chain bookstores is that, in the words of publisher Michael Heywood (quoted in the article), Australia has "become a nation of independent booksellers overnight."

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Book Sufficiency...

A few days ago I went to visit the wonderful bookstore the Book Barge while it was moored on Regent’s Canal just behind Kings Cross station. I had some idea of what to expect having read some recent news coverage but one thing that had escaped my notice was that the barge’s adventure up and down the canals of the UK is an experiment in what might be called “book-sufficient living.” For six months the floating book shop is making a tour of the country “living off books for the entirety of the trip, bartering stock for food, accommodation.” The hope is that this radical experiment will draw attention to the plight of independent booksellers, prompting readers to reassess the value of books in the wake of the massive discounting trends of online and supermarket retailers. If book shopping could be understood not only in terms of the market value of price tags but more directly in terms of a book's value as an item equivalent to, say, a meal or a warm shower perhaps this would bring price considerations into better balance when readers decide where and how they want to buy a book.

The Book Barge @Large experiment offers an interesting example of the way in which it is possible to reinvigorate public interest in visiting the bricks and mortar (or in this case, wood and water) bookshop. The barge is a USP. But the problem is not getting customers but getting sales. Thanks to chain stores and internet retailers readers have grown to expect discounts and, indeed, many people believe that they are being cheated in some way if a store sells anything at full price. This means that even though customers enjoy browsing the independents, many people seek out discounts when it is time to make a purchase. It seems to me that by trying this “bartering for books” experiment the Book Barge presents customers with a way to think beyond this basic reduction to market principles. What if the exchange wasn’t strictly financial, but still economic? An experiment like this provides a useful corrective to the easy acceptance that all economies come down to capital - some run on other currencies. And in demonstrating this the Book Barge illustrates that the triumph of the discount isn’t inevitable. As Laura Miller points out in her book about US independent booksellers:

“the production, circulation, and consumption of goods can be organized in many ways, and even in the modern world, noncapitalist forms exist, sometimes temporarily, sometimes as a pale memory of earlier irganizational types, but nonetheless, not that difficult to find.” (10)

You can read more about the ideas that inspired the Book Barge @Large adventure here.