|A sign of the past or|
herald of an offline focused future?
It's not often people write glowing posts about their competitors. But I was commissioned to write this by Patrick Duffy, a remarkable man whose generous spirit is mirrored by fellow new-to-the-book-world owner of bookshop Libreria and uber cool technology lover, Rohan Silva. It's no surprise they both wish each other and other similar bookshops well, booksellers are an old fashioned breed steeped in good manners and generosity.
[Truth is, I didn't even need to be asked to write this after listening to Rohan Silva on Radio 4's Open Book on 19th February having heard him say, 'I think we're going to see a real renaissance of physical books, of reading and of bookshops in the coming years...']
Simple secret, devilishly difficult to deliver. It transpires that both Silva and Duffy have discovered a secret which puts a blue ocean between each other and their competitors: the art of a cannily curated book selection. More to the point how it's offered matters as much as what is offered. It produces something as delicious as Beatons' carrot cake and (unlike the recipe for that) Silva and Duffy happy to share their strategy.
Rohan Silva, co-owner with Sam Alderton (also of Second Home), have only recently opened Libreria in London's trendy Brick Lane. It's a bookshop with a bar which bars mobile phones. Patrick Duffy, Founder and MD of Beatons Tearooms and Bookshop group has been successfully serving up tea and books for the past five years in his Cecil Beaton inspired interiors, oozing taste and gracious hospitality. It accepts mobile devices and wi-fi but encourages its customers to switch off, pause and relax [more].
So why would selling a smaller collection of books which are not even discounted work?
Four common elements underpin Silva and Duffy's strategy, the last of which may be startling enough to cause the likes of Amazon to sweat a little because it can't be mimicked online.
- Audience, Ambiance and Location MatchCrystal clear about their respective audiences, these new kinds of bookshops locate their shops where their audience want to hang out. Not exactly rocket science but precision is key. They're also attentive to the smallest detail in getting the ambiance right... As Philip Jones in The Bookseller Online said, 'it seems we are now entering the period of the "designer bookshop", shops defined... not by size, ownership... but by how it feels to step inside them'.
- Out with AlgorithmsWhereas Google and Amazon (and even to a lesser extent Goodreads) will recommend what they think we want, a smaller, carefully physically curated selection allows for serendipity and the senses to play their natural part. Silva has spotted this is not just something for Beatons' largely 50+ hungry market but for Millennials too. '... people are really craving, in the age of algorithms that say 'you're going to like this if you like that' that are very narrow and recursive, people really crave genuine serendipity and discovery and that's what great physical bookshops do and we're celebrating that.'
- Books, Beverages and Literature Go Together...... like scones and jam! This isn't a new idea. Indeed as I write this Austrian Coffeehouse group Julius Meinl who claim to have been inspiring poets since 1862 are serving up coffee on World Poetry Day for which you can pay by poem! Beatons gives away free poem postcards and commissions one for each new tearooms as it opens, Libreria boasts a working printing press. But when it comes to beverages, again, it's all about matching book-buyer to beverage. Silva has a bar, Beatons has loose-leaf teas, Italian coffees and iced sodas in Villeroy & Boch bespoke china.
- Recognition of the 'Slow Offline Migration'This is where the likes of Amazon and other online outlets are necessarily caught in the red sea of sharks gnashing their teeth over price. Sure, some on the High Street will spy a book and buy it cheaper online at home. But places like Libreria and Beatons speak to humanity's innate integrity (in fact Beatons Blandford Forum will even give you your parking money back if you tell them you paid for it). The press quoted Silva as saying drinks would come free (I haven't tested this yet and hesitate to mention it, but the spirit - excuse the pun - is there). And of course, the startling bit is that Silva believes that Millennials don't want to be slaves to their screen. In fact, he's tested that at Second Home, where he's created a hanging garden area in which electronic devices are banned.As Alex Clark in the Guardian said in his review, 'And there's this growing awareness, quite mainstream now in this community, that being in front of your screen the whole time, being plugged into digital technology the whole time, isn't great for your happiness or your creativity.' This is something Duffy and the large portion of Beatons' regulars have known for years and may account for the sense of warmth and conviviality of the tearooms.
But what might this mean for the High Street? What might this mean for society? Is it conceivable that the Millennials of today might be the parents of the shopkeepers of tomorrow? Might word of mouth move from Facebook back to face to face? I wonder whether on Twitter's twentieth birthday (today is its tenth) we'll be back to referring to our feathered friends when we talk of tweets!
Perhaps not my lifetime, but in the meantime, as Silva said, 'Bookshops that offer something different are thriving.'
As an author who refuses to publish any of her future books in e-format in the future, I'll raise a cup Beatons Brew to that!
Liz Darcy Jones, 21st March 2016
Non-Executive Director & House Poet
Non-Executive Director & House Poet