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.
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?