What makes a good bookshop?

A discussion over at John Self’s Asylum blog got me thinking about this question today. The answer of course is highly personal, but when I thought about the bookshops I tend to enjoy browsing and buying in there are some traits in common.

So, here’s my thoughts on what makes a good bookshop, and at the end I’ll add some thoughts on what makes a bad one. These points aren’t necessarily in any order of precedence, just as they strike me.

1. Breadth of stock. The London Review Bookshop carries a wide range of authors and usually has most of their back catalogue in stock, not just the most recent one. It holds though only one copy of each (as a rule). The shop’s not that big, so there has to be a compromise between breadth and depth. Chain bookstores tend to opt for depth of popular titles, there’s a lot of demand for Dan Brown for example so there’ll be multiple copies of each of his books. They often won’t bother stocking an author’s earlier works, there’s not the traffic to merit it.

From my perspective though I don’t generally go to bookshops to buy the latest popular novel. I go to find something I don’t already know or to pick up a particular novel by a writer I rate. Depth isn’t that useful to me, breadth is. I don’t care if you have fifteen copies of Jordan’s new novel. I do care if you have a single copy of Hangover Square.

2. Books in good condition. We can generally take this for granted in the UK (though Borders in London was often shocking in its care of the books). In Italy though I’ve often found books very badly cared for even when the shop was otherwise good. It’s a bit obvious, but it is important.

3. A clean, light and airy environment. I know some folk love digging in musty corners among mouldering tomes. I’m not one of them. I like my bookshops to be clean, well lit so I can browse and unstuffy in the physical sense as well as the social one.

4. Friendly staff. Simple really, staff should be friendly and approachable. Ideally they should know something about books, though on bookshop wages that can be a slightly unrealistic ask. It helps though even if they don’t know that much if they at least give the impression of liking books or of having read something other than a magazine. I don’t care if they share my tastes, but if they’re glowering or unapproachable then I don’t really care how good the stock is. It’s no longer a pleasant experience.

5. Somewhere to sit. I don’t care about coffee, I don’t care about having a snack, but somewhere to sit while I consider a potential purchase would be nice. It doesn’t have to be grand or to look like a set from Friends. A couple of chairs is more than adequate. Even if they’re full of other people I’ll appreciate the effort’s been made.

6. Display tables that display stuff I don’t already know about. If your display table features a bunch of popular thrillers, disposable light novels (as opposed to good light novels) or well known classics that doesn’t really light my fire. If though you’ve got a display of Italian fiction in translation, or books by Bitter Lemon press, or gothic novels then the chances are there’s something there I don’t already know about. There’s the chance of a surprise. Display tables are the chance to take something out of the anonymity of the main shelves and let people know it’s out there. Doing that for books people already know about is a waste (unless you want to make money of course, what I like in a bookshop and what’s profitable for a bookshop are not necessarily related things…).

Basically, whether you do it through display tables or some other means, encourage serendipity. Amazon’s recommendations software isn’t great. What a good bookshop often provides is serendipitous discoveries, and display tables are a great way to do that. To surprise though, to give something more than the customer was expecting, there has to be something on the table that they wouldn’t have thought of themselves.

I could probably go on, but that’s enough for the moment. I didn’t put tolerance for browsing on my list, as happily I’ve not really been to any bookshops that didn’t tolerate browsing. If this were a post about good comic shops on the other hand that would have been right up there…

I also didn’t put in-store events down. That’s because I’m personally indifferent to them. Lots of folk love them though so they’re clearly a good idea.

The essence of everything above is that the shop is a nice place to spend time in. The thing is, pretty much everything a bookshop sells (with only very rare exceptions) I can buy cheaper on Amazon. If that’s so, why should I pay more at a bookshop? Well, if the bookshop brings new writers to my attention, lets me browse a wide range of books and authors and is pleasant to be in then if I want all that to continue I’ll shop there. If it doesn’t do those things though, I’ll buy online.

Essentially, the only thing a bookshop has that Amazon doesn’t is the personal element. For the bookshop to be viable, people like me have to knowingly spend more than we could and that’s not a rational response, it’s an emotional one. The best bookshops aren’t places we buy books, they’re places where books are loved and we buy there because that has value to us.

Here’s a few things I think detract from a bookshop:

1. A focus on stuff that isn’t books. Is it a bookshop or a stationers with a sideline in boardgames, Moleskin notebooks, wrapping paper, local area guides and some books tucked away somewhere at the back?

2. Pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap. I’ve bought in three for two offers. I don’t knock the concept. But when I go in and the first thing I see is a stack of Delia’s, Jordan’s and other people too grand for a surname I’m not enticed. Equally, if I’m wading past stacks of Dan Brown and Twilight novels then I’m getting the message the shop’s for occasional readers, not readers like me. There’s nothing wrong with shops for occasional readers, except that really there’s no reason for them to exist given you can get the same titles from Amazon next day for less.

3. Music.

And I’ll leave that there, because I like lists of things that are good more than I like lists of things that are bad.

So, anything there anyone disagrees with? Anything missing?

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37 Comments

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37 responses to “What makes a good bookshop?

  1. Lee Monks

    Hear hear!

    Here’s a briefer list of bookshop wants:

    1 A hardback fiction section (my Waterstones recently dispensed with theirs).

    2 An at least decent set of NYRB Classics and Pushkin Press books.

    3 Every single great writer’s 5 main books covered. Even if they only wrote 4.

    4 Idiots undertaking lengthy and non-book related conversations DIRECTLY IN FRONT of a shelf you want to peruse.

    5 Teenagers with stoned smiles congregating around offer piles talking utter nonsense.

    6 Supposedly new books with bent spines, dog-ears and finger smudges that THEY ONLY HAVE ONE DAFT COPY OF.

    7 Staff that kind of, like, offer to help but, hey, we can always order it, no, OK…

    8 An end to the Local Interest section. Stop bumming yourselves and understand: nobody is interested, be they locals or not.

    9 Stop inviting Jamie Oliver and Delia Dimmock and so on so celeb-stalkers and cognoscenti can gawk – start getting the big hitters in that MIGHT HAVE SOMETHING INTERESTING TO SAY THAT ISN’T ABOUT FOOD.

    10 Allow me, Max, John Self, Trevor Berrett and Kevin From Canada, amongst others, sort out your catalogue.

  2. GB Steve

    Although Waterstones is not very good for many of the reasons you mention, the one in Covent Garden has an excellent shelf or two of Gothic and Horror fiction that’s a terrific place to find new (at least to me) things. It’s the only reason I go in there but that alone encourages me to look at other things (such as a new Kadare translation). They also do staff recommendations although I’m rather suspicious about these now, having seen the same one in several stores.

    Most of the other bookshops I go to are second hand although LRB is, as you say, a good place.

  3. Bookshops….
    The bookshop (used or new) once upon a time was a dream destination, and I could lose myself for hours inside the rows.

    Some of it depends, of course, on where you live and the sorts of bookshops available.

    Over the years as my personal library has grown, and the number of books I’ve read has increased, trips to bookshops have become disappointing for the most part.

    One thing that dismays me is the mess in the bookshops that offer coffee and whatsits to the customers. Books covered in jammy smudges pile up in the coffee section. What happens to the stained and ruined books? Are they tossed or re-shelved?

    I loathe bookshops that play ‘candleshop’ faux gaelic crap music.

    Ideally–a good showing from the smaller presses.

    Stacks of the Dan Brown or Dan Brown clones are off-putting but then I am in the minority here.

    More and more I turn to the internet after too many trips to bookshops from which I return empty-handed.

  4. Lee Monks

    ‘More and more I turn to the internet after too many trips to bookshops from which I return empty-handed.’

    Heavy recognition with this line, in particular…

  5. And cats get my vote in used book shops.

  6. Lee: Yes, I would prefer to support the ‘brick and mortar’ bookshops, but it’s a 10 mile drive to the nearest new book shop (a chain) and their selection is depressingly thin.

    Privately-owned or franchise book shops seem to be generated from the owner’s love of books, so I have a fighting chance there, but that’s an even longer drive to avoid the huge chains.

    The last few trips have been a wasted effort.

    Does anyone know how bookshops ‘work’? By that I mean pay within 30 days or are books sent on consignment?

  7. 1. I’ve found a surprising number of books in “the staff recommends” sections of independent bookstores (not the chains). And I am curious about what the staff does read.
    2. I don’t like staff who press books on me based on books that I am browsing — by the time I get to the till however, I don’t mind “if you like this you might also like…”
    3. And like Guy and Lee, I am more and more an internet buyer. Bloggers (and to a lesser extent surfing publisher sites) have replaced browsing in introducing me to new authors — and warehouses tend to have a more complete backlist than high street stores do.

  8. Lee Monks

    ‘I don’t like staff who press books on me based on books that I am browsing — by the time I get to the till however, I don’t mind “if you like this you might also like…”’

    Oh boy, totally. I had a staff member basically follow me 50yds to the till as he attempted to get me to repluck the book he’d very animatedly pressed upon me seconds earlier, quite odd. I’d bought a Paris Review collection and he implored me to buy a (rather expensive) hardback of one of the featured authors (that I’d never heard of at the time – Charles D’Ambrosio). It was initially endearing and an assumed overspill of enthusiasm; it became something less agreeable. He looked genuinely upset. All very strange, and thankfully a one-time-only incident!

  9. There’s a big difference here in France : stores cannot freely decide of the book prices. There are laws to protect small bookshops from chains and try to develop reading. The price is decided by the editor (and sometimes printed on the cover) and books can’t be discounted by more than 5%. So it’s not cheaper to buy online or in a chain. The VAT rate is reduced too, to keep the price lower for the reader.

    The general idea is that books are part of the “cultural exception” and cannot be marketed as other goods.

    Apart from all your requests (or demands) for a good book store, I would add another one : a space for foreign books in their original version that goes beyond Twilight, Harry Potter and “A year in the merde”.

    I lately looked for Westlake books in 4 different stores : a chain, two independant stores and a supermarket. I eventually found several Westlake in the last independant store and surprisingly as many in the supermarket. None of them had the one I wanted, I bought it online.

    My favorite book shop here combines the advantages of chains and private bookshops. It has a good online store : when you click on the title of a book, most of the time, you have a little summary of the plot and information about the author.
    Their “brick and mortar” stores are light and display tables mix bestsellers and more confidential books. (That’s where I found The Beauty and The Beast from Mme de Villeneuve I reviewed the other day)
    I also rely a lot on the editor’s name. I know the ones which usually publish books I will like.

  10. I avoid big chain bookstores as much as possible. I’ve never really been into mainstream nor marketing. My favourite indy bookstore has 3 floors of used books piled in every nook and cranny (including on stairs and the floor). The only new books they sell are those by local authors and about the region. It’s an organized mess, but I don’t mind digging around- I usually come away with a stack of treasures. There are a few stools for reaching high stacks or sitting and reading. It’s staffed by older folk who are always friendly, helpful, love reading, and who recognize the regular customers. As a bonus, it’s two blocks away and I can sell books for credit towards purchases.

  11. Lee: Your comment captures my experience. Being followed by some “child” (okay, I am aging) pushing a book on you to which you want to say “that book is “, except you haven’t read the book (and don’t want to) and all you really want is for the person to go back behind the till.

    All of which occurs in the bookstore that you most like. Definitely a reason to head down the street to a friendly pub where the bartender does not comment on your reading and you can quietly open a good book.

  12. One of the reasons I started blogging was to hook up with like minded readers and get book suggestions this way, and it’s working quite well. Get to get out of the old groove and expand my horizons a bit.

    I also signed up to several publishers’ e-lists so that I get recommendations (NYRB, Serpent’s Tail are good examples of this). The smaller publishing houses don’t seem to get much exposure, so this seems to work well. Some of these publishers consistently produce titles that I am interested in (may not buy ‘em but I’ll take a look). Many publishers are very internet-friendly and offer excerpts or a whole chapter online so that you can preview prior to purchase. I think it’s great. Does this even the playing field? A bit I hope, but the main thing is that there is access.

  13. A passionate list Lee. I’d totally forgotten hardbacks you know, probably because I don’t personally buy them.

    I definitely sympathise with 9. It’s like a message saying the shop’s not aimed at me. There’s nothing I disagree with though. 6 I suspect is made worse by having coffee areas in store…

    GB, individual branches sometimes have very good sections. The local one in Fleet Street has a good section of a small press European publisher. I think managers have less freedom than they once did, but they still have some and some push that freedom more than others. When they do it makes a real difference.

    I suspect the staff recommendations are that, but it wouldn’t surprise me that they get used in multiple stores and I’m sure they’re vetted so that the “right” books get recommended. That said, I got into Chester Himes through a staff recommendation, and no corporate drone would have approved that. Some stuff still gets through.

    Guy, privately owned are generated through love I think. That’s partly what I was getting at. It sounds sentimental, but without the love I may as well go online. A good smaller press selection is also a must.

    Kevin, regardless of type of store I don’t like pushy staff. I grant it can be a fine line between being standoffish or pushy, but I’d rather not be inadvertently stalked as per Lee’s example.

  14. bookaround, we used to have that rule in the UK too. For better or worse it’s long gone. Losing it hammered the independents so I suspect for worse (they couldn’t compete with the big boys ability to price discount).

    Foreign language in original version, almost nowhere does that. Italy often has good sections for tourists, France I’ve not seen so much. The UK you have to go to specialist shops really. My wife often reads books in the Italian or Spanish but she has to buy them abroad.

    Do bookshops in France file books by publisher rather than author? They do in Spain and sometimes in Italy, and Foyles used to in the UK. It drives me mad, I know who the author is but I often won’t know who publsihed it and with a prolific author it means I have to look in something like five different places to find the whole stock by him.

    Mish, John Sandoe in London works just like that. Part of the idea is that as you dig around you discover things. It’s a way of engineering serendipity, the surprise discovery which I think is so key to a good independent bookshop.

  15. I don’t remember any politician talking about changing the law on book prices. It seems well accepted.

    Foreign language sections tend to develop in bookstores, mostly for English books. It started because of Harry Potter’s frenzy, I think . People wanted to read the new volume before it was translated, so bookstores sold it in English. People discovered they could read in English and asked for more. Something good came out of all this marketing.

    And also, the younger generations speak better English too, which helps.

    The same trend applies to movies : you can see them more and more often in English. TV has started double broadcasting, which means you can choose to watch an American TV show in English (with subtitles or not) or in French. I try to watch dvds in English with English subtitles, it’s easier to catch everything and learn new words. (especially for UK accents, I’m afraid .)

    Maybe your wife could find an Italian online book store to purchase Italian books ?

    French bookstores don’t file books according to the publisher, fortunately. It would drive me crazy too. They sometimes separate paperbacks from hard covers, that’s it.
    But each publisher has its own design for covers and it helps to recognize them on the shelves.

  16. Great piece and we’re roughly in agreement. What truly great bookshops afford is the opportunity to discover something new from browsing. Failure to provide this was in my opinion the downfall of Borders and what has put Waterstones (save for the one on Piccadilly and the Bloomsbury one with its excellent remainders section) on the backfoot. As you rightly suggest, they facillitate existing markets with what is already in demand – 3 for 2, Twilight, Dan Brown, celeb biogs at the expense of variety. It’s not a charge that can be labelled at Amazon that is always enabling me to go on hunts, and stumble across all sorts of new books. My choice bookshops in London for this would include Skoob and Judd Books (both in Bloomsbury), Daunt Books (Marylebone) and John Sandoe Books off the Kings Road.

    Loads of great bookshops listed here in 2008 – intersting to see how many have survived.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/jul/01/bestbookshops4

  17. winstonsdad

    what do i like in a bookshop well my favourite ever book shop is barter books a second hand bookshop biggest in uk was where i lived for a time spent many a hour browsing the vast stock ,i to hate pushy staff if after 20 plus years of adult reading i don’t want some high school kid or student telling me i should read this or that ,on whole i us internet as not one inpendant near me so for vast scope of books i read our waterstones is small and poorly stocked (aren’t they all !) ,love visting lrb or foyles and several others whenever in the big smoke .all the best stu

  18. A very interesting post attracting some equally interesting comments! I’m ashamed to say I rarely visit any bookshop – mainly because I live in a small town without any at all, and my next town only has Waterstones. I think music would be the worst thing. The best bookshop I visit (and only occasionally) is MuchAdo books of Alfriston who won prizes for their service.

  19. Every time I go to John Sandoe they follow me around as though I’m about to steal something. Really welcoming that…

    I’ve never had much joy there. Mind you, if I go into an actual bricks and mortar book shop, it’s generally because I want something in particular right there and then and Sandoe’s stuck is quite limited. Nice space though… very much what you would think of when you picture an old-fashioned book shop in your head.

  20. Ideally, no genre sections: just a straightforward A to Z. Makes discovering things easier and more fun. Saves some of the confusion, too, about where to stock someone. Can’t remember who it was, but I’d been looking for a writer, found none of their books, until I one day took a trip to a genre area and found their books.

    Next up is for chains. Keep it decentralised. My local Waterstone’s was great for what was on display. Always creative tables – Czech Spring, featuring Czech work; Plagiarism?, featuring things like Soderberg’s Doctor Glas and Ohlsson’s Gregorius – which regularly changed and that gave good exposure to the likes of Twisted Spoon Press, Northwestern University Press, Pushkin Press, and Dalkey Archive. Things like that are no longer with us and we’ve had the Historicsl Fiction and Chick Lit tables instead since The Hub. Spoilt for choice soon became spoilt choice.

    For multiple-floored stores, I don’t quite like having to go to the first floor for my fiction because the main entrance is crowded by chefs and the like. I would dot the three for twos elsewhere, so ad to better invite browsers into the store, rather than let them trolleydash the ground floor. (Hey, three for two UPSTAIRS, come on in…)

    Breadth over depth, of course.

    That’s me for now.

  21. Lee Monks

    ‘Ideally, no genre sections: just a straightforward A to Z. Makes discovering things easier and more fun.’

    Absolutely!

  22. Emma (my wife) didn’t find John Sandoe very friendly either, odd as they have a friendly reputation. Perhaps it’s some particular staff members.

    Waterstones was better when decentralised, The Hub’s been a disaster.

    No genre sections is actually how I shelve books at home, with the exceptions of SF and fantasy as Emma doesn’t read those so they do have their own section. Literary fiction though is in there with crime, the few historicals, whatever really.

    It would be interesting in general bookstores, though I suspect a lot of literary fiction fans would hate finding SF among their books and I suspect equally a lot of SF fans would hate finding literary fiction among theirs. Still, the mix might do both some good.

  23. I was in London yesterday and was disappointed to find that Books Etc in Victoria Street had closed. Couldn’t be bothered to get up a bus up to Charing X rd or Picadilly. SW1 now seems to have no general bookshops left at all! Its all the fault of people like me I suppose who tend to buy online

  24. Books Etc was bought up by Borders when they came to the UK Tom.

    I read an article in the FT where the then (and possibly still) CEO of Borders said that in a new market their policy was to stock what they stocked in the US then slowly adapt it as they saw what sold.

    I thought at the time it sounded an expensive way of doing things, and mad when you acquire an already successful local bookseller. It did explain though why for a while it was easy to find detailed books on US politics and history, lots on China and Russia but damn all on European history.

    Anyway, Borders UK (unsurprisingly in my view) went bust and it took Books etc with it. The whole thing was a fiasco of an acquisition, they took a successful local chain, made it less local then went out of business.

  25. Leave it to chains to “fix” what ain’t broke and screw it up completely.

    Knowing my local store didn’t have something, I went into a chain store, but of course they didn’t have it because it’s not “popular” and I ended up ordering it elsewhere.

  26. I write about a culture that is pretty close-mouthed, and maybe because of that reason, what really annoys me at Borders is their new idea of having screens up in the store blaring out commercials for books.

    I want silence.

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  28. My local used and new book store held a book burning when earlier this year they re-designed the layout. I have refused to go back since. We do have two chain stores but it is hard to find what I want.

  29. Edward Tobin

    I have to agree with the article we stock 30k titles across all ranges with a steady inflow of used and specialist titles which bring Customers back time after time, we are in the Country so our Customers are more focused about what they want as they may travel some distance to us. Bright open space and the proper display of that which is out of the ordinary communicates a sense of caring. Bookshops need to invest in the relationship with the Buyer and provide a good inviting atmosphere that lifts us above the ordinary experience of shopping.

  30. Shelley, I’m not a fan of Borders. It always felt to me like a supermarket that stocked books instead of baked beans. The screens and commercials thing is used by my local Tescos. I dislike it there and I’d hate it in a bookstore.

    Amelia, that’s extraordinary. I wouldn’t go back either. Perhaps irrationally, one thing that put me off the kindle was the name, nobody who loved books would name their device by reference to bookburning. But even more so, nobody who loves books or who has any grasp of history would actually burn them.

    Edward, exactly, it’s about a relationship. Thanks for bringing experience from the trade. If people have to travel to your store (most likely then to pay more than they would online) then clearly your store has to be worth travelling to and spending a bit more on.

    That’s no easy thing, so congratulations for managing it. But as you say range, proper display, bright open spaces, a sense of caring, these are key things.

    People want bookstores, but the bookstore has to be something more than a supermarket to keep that feeling alive.

  31. Fascinating post, Max. If asked what made a good book shop I would have been hard pushed to come up with any sort of answer, because I tend to shop from the internet on the strength of blogger recommendations. On the rare occasion when I do go to a corporeal book shop (Usually Waterstones, Waterstones or Waterstones) the books I am searching for are unlikely to be in stock.

    What would entice me back? Your point no. 6. Decent recommendations plus the opportunity to skim the merchandise. Yep, that’s what we need.

    Second-hand bookshops are, of course, a completely different proposition…

  32. Waterstones varies so heavily branch to branch, though sadly with The Hub less than it used to.

    With those choices, I’d shop more online myself. Hell, I do mostly buy online, but I also buy at the LRB because I just plain like it.

    In the absence of somewhere that makes us just plain like it, online simply makes more sense. Hence my argument about the importance of the irrational.

  33. I agree with all your 6 likes in a bookshop … breadth being a particularly important one AND like you I do prefer light and airy. Of your dislikes, I don’t mind music – as long as it’s not too loud and of the right sort but there’s the rub eh, the right sort for one is not for another so perhaps it’s best left.

    I would add that I like bookshops that have an online catalogue to help you find what you want – but it needs to be up to date as to holdings and location (which section the books can be found in).

  34. Oops, I actually meant a computer terminal in the store so I can check their holdings and know where to find the items if they have it (not an online one!)

  35. That’s the tricky bit with music. Tastes vary so wildly that there’s a real risk of putting people off.

    Plus, if I’m looking at say a Zweig or a Schnitzler some classical in the background (of the right sort) may not be so bad. But if I’m looking for a gritty noir set in the Midlands or a fast moving space opera epic that same classical music is going to be quite distracting.

    Put on some Muse and that fits the SF really well, but the guy down the store trying to look at a John Berger probably isn’t feeling the mood so much.

    The terminal’s a nice idea. Waterstones do that and it’s a handy feature.

  36. Anyway, Borders UK (unsurprisingly in my view) went bust and it took Books etc with it. The whole thing was a fiasco of an acquisition, they took a successful local chain, made it less local then went out of business.

    Books etc survives, for now, as <a href="http://www.booksetc.co.uk/"an online retailer.

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