What bookshops do well (II): Community

I still have shelves of books and computer files of old content, all attesting to the importance of the Third Place (Ray Oldenburg’s Great Good Place, Leon Kreitzman’s 24 Hour Society, etc).

Bookshops have always offered sanctuary, but in the 1990s, they started to offer more.  In the US, Borders and Barnes & Noble starting adding cafes to their newfangled superstores; in the UK, Books etc was rolling cafes into its mall stores; and on both sides of the pond, adventurous independents were doing the same.  Sometimes the cafes were corporate – B&N signed with Starbucks to serve their coffee when Starbucks was still small.  Sometimes, by contrast, the cafe operation was determinedly handmade and wholemeal.

Either way, cafes changed bookstores.  You could argue that they saved bookstores, in that they broadened the customer base, and made the bookstore into a place to meet as well as a place to browse or shop.

Or you could argue that it was cafes that ruined bookstores, pushing them into the mass-market and eliminating their spiritual calm in a clatter of crockery and fizzing espresso machines; that the traffic coffeeshops were generating inside bookstores pushed the chains into bigger sites – more prime pitch, more expensive, and ultimately more ruinous.

But the simple fact is that a cafe gives a bookshop its community hook.  Once there is a meeting place within the shop, then the opportunities for customers to visit increase exponentially.  The customer who buys a coffee in your store everyday is more likely to use you for their book and magazine purchases.  They will start to feel a sense of “belonging” – they have invested time in the bookshop, they approve of its atmosphere, its range, its staff, it becomes in some way theirs.

A golden age ensued in the nineties and the noughties.  Bookshops are odd places.  They encourage extended browsing, and customers don’t feel cheated if they spend an hour in the store and buy nothing.  This may be the case with large fashion boutiques, or with record shops, but both of these store types appeal to a specific customer.  A good general bookshop, on the other hand, provides something for every literate member of the community.  One of the reasons Borders appealed to landlords in the UK was that it provided a centre of interest and excitement for all the family, helping to turn the retail park visit, with Dad at B&Q and Mum in Next, into a proper family outing.

The existence of the cafe made all sorts of other peripherals much easier to organise – the book club, the author reading, the extended opening hours, the children’s story-time.  Mother-and-baby groups spontaneously formed in bookshop cafes – friendships were made, and store loyalty sealed.

Now, the golden age is over.  Bookshops are disappearing, and the community facility that they provided is disappearing as well.  Of course, cafes will survive – standalone Costas in retail parks, grim no-name eateries in giant supermarkets – but the bookstore cafe was more relaxed and less clattery than the dedicated food’n’beverage venue.

All of this is taking place precisely when all of us in the Big Society (however ill-defined that may be) would benefit from meeting places flexible enough to meet our community-enhancing needs.

Now would be a great time to reinvent the library.  I wholeheartedly support the principles behind the libraries campaign currently being fought in England, but I also recognise the inescapable fact that demand for physical books is going to fall, probably quite precipitately.  The campaign for the library as book provider is starting to look quixotic.

A smart Big Society would support a variety of community venues – church halls, pubs, libraries, basic entertainment venues – like the campaign for Vital Kingston, with which I’m involved.  This isn’t a political blog.  But if Mr Cameron et al do want to encourage and support community involvement and ownership (in the broadest sense), where better place to start?

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