Friday, February 11, 2011

Ethel the Aardvark Goes Quantity Surveying...

By Russel D McLean

Today, returning from Edinburgh after attending the launch of Tony Black’s excellent new novel, TRUTH LIES BLEEDING, I found myself stuck for an hour or so in a small town waiting for the next train. I took a walk around and found myself in the local bookshop. A bookshop even locals don’t seem to know exists.

I find this strange. I know people in this small town, people who are avid readers, and they are completely unaware that this shop exists. Many of them have lamented the lack of a local bookstore – citing a long remembered indy that closed down in the early nineties when the owners retired – and do not seem to have noticed that this store has existed in their town centre for… well, a long time apparently.

The store itself is not large but it has the potential to be one of those little hidden away places you delight in discovering. But it suffers from huge problems. A lack of local publicity. And the frankly appalling stock management. I have been in this bookstore before and every time have noticed the same trends; a distinct lack of interest in local authors (of which there are a fair few, although even those advertised outside are not clearly in stock) and a shelving system that seems to be based along the lines of “lets throw it on and see what happens.” I’m not event going to mention the “feature table” that was just random books thrown on with some balanced on plastic displays. Not a shred of passion evident. Not a jot of local personality. Not only that, but to the best of my knowledge the store has no internet presence, either. And one can talk about the perils of the internet until they’re blue in the face, but the fact is you need some kind of presence on there. Not neccesarily a store front, but a presence, something that lets people know who and where you are and why they should come to you if they are in the local area.

During my recent tour of the states, the best indies I visited had much in common: they thrived on knowledge, enthusiasm and a welcoming atmosphere. They were well organised (even if they initially looked chaotic) and most of them thrived on local atmosphere. And events. Offering something chain stores and the internet could not; a chance to meet authors. This local bookstore has shrugged when presented with authors from the area in the past (Even when customers have asked for authors from the local area, they’ve been met with a shrug and a “I haven’t heard of them. What, they were in the local paper? Why would I read that?” response). In short, they were good at what they do. They were on the ball. They were part of the local community. They were supportive of authors.

This bookstore is none of these things, and it depressed me to see. In the current climate, I think that while ebooks offer a challenge to print, they are not – and some people are going to disagree with me on this – going to entirely replace them. I think that physical bookstores; by offering more than a place where one goes to buy books, by offering a hub and a face to face community* where readers can engage both each other and, yes, authors. Oh, I’m a believer in good author events, in that unique physical interaction and in the fact that a personally signed book is genuinely worth something that is immeasurable in money terms.

Yes, e-books are here to stay and probably at cheap prices that will appeal to mass buyers. But physical books and bookstores need to up their game to stay relevant. They may never have the dominance they once enjoyed (and I believe that is a shame) but they need to remain as the bastion of the joy of books and written-word storytelling, as the people who know whereof the talk, the people you go to, the people you who genuinely love what they are selling. You should want to walk in because they can offer you the kind of discussion that cannot be had with Amazon’s “recommend” system and because they can offer you a uniquely human and direct link to their product.

*at last year’s Bouchercon I was struck by toastmaster Eddie Muller talking about how face to face interaction encourages romance in the world. My interpretation of what he said was that he meant not just lovey-dovey romance, but that genuinely exciting feeling that comes with real interaction - - something that online forums cannot replicate entirely, despite presenting the illusion thereof and despite having an undeniable place in modern society.


Unknown said...

I agree with everything you say here. That bookshop sounds like a wasted opportunity. It's a wonder it's still open.

Jay Stringer said...

in a way i think the success of apple stores shows that specialist retail is still a viable option.

I spent a heartbreaking few years working for a couple of large national book chains who were driving full tilt toward selling "a bit of everything" and competing with ASDA and TESCO.

But what gets lost in that drive is the very thing that would really get people into the store; staff who know their sections inside out, who care about the product and the know their customers. Local ties. A relationship with authors and schools and community groups.

I go in my local apple store, and they're specialist, they sell a pretty narrow field of stock -with a few relevant accessories- and they have staff who know the stock, use the stock, and who are briefed to engage with customers about the damned stock.

Sure, there's a difference because apple is selling stuff that it makes (hmmmm....publishers...hmmmm) but the idea isn't that far removed.

Anyone can go to a supermarket, it's fast and convenient. But you're not going to go there to ask the staff for reccomendations. ASDA sell bikes, but when i was shopping around for a new bike i wanted to talk to people who knew what they were on about. ASDA sell DVD's, but if i fancy a film i want to talk to someone who likes films. ASDA sell books, but none of the staff there are going to get to know me, and engage with me and talk to me about the books and my tastes.

More stores need to get back to this. They're not going to make money hand over fist, but nobody ever is. But get the right stock, the right staff and the right atmosphere, and you can make a specialist store work. And you will enjoy the hell out of it.

inkgrrl said...

Hearing about an indy bookstore with an attitude like that makes me wonder if it's a front for something else. How the hell do they stay in business?