Русские идут на Пикадилли

Waterstones is opening a Russian language department at its Piccadilly flagship.  Called Slova, a full range of 5,000 Russian fiction and non-fiction titles will be sold from the ground floor mezzanine.  Russia is a society of great literature and voracious readers – and, of course, Waterstones now has a Russian owner.  You can read more in this article from the Independent.

Foreign language books have always been a wallflower department in English language bookshops.  Because English is the world’s lingua franca (joke), we’ve never had much patience with literature in other languages, however worldly and cosmopolitan we may be – and I’m talking about the US and Australia as well as Britain.   (Of course, I’m describing the population at large – I know that London’s literary lions devour books in Portuguese and Polish at their Tuscan pool-sides each summer.)

But compare the yards of English language fiction in any Dutch, Swedish or even French bookshop, to the sad couple of shelves we offer, often under the heading “Untranslated Literature”.   That’s “untranslated” as in “the job was unfinished”.  Worse yet, our Untranslated Literature often turns out to  the very obvious (Dumas, Simenon), or translated English (Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen, El Codigo Da Vinci).

So, I salute the Mamut/Daunt initiative in Piccadilly, and very much hope that this is the start of something much bigger.

London, the World City, boasts a population drawn from every corner of the world.  The global village covers every demographic as well, from the bright young sandwich makers at Pret (where most of the staff were born outside the UK) to the old and the mega-rich in Chelsea and Belgravia.  Most of them shop and transact business in the West End – so perhaps Waterstones’ initiative could be just a starting point.

If we’re honest, the Piccadilly flagship can feel a little empty.  Two floors are given over to cafes and entertaining, and the circulation space elsewhere is huge.  The location has always been a little odd, in trade bookshop terms – Charing Cross Road or Bloomsbury feel appropriate, Oxford Street provides traffic, but Piccadilly…?

And now, suddenly, Piccadilly looks very well placed, however, if we recast it from being the biggest iteration of your standard Waterstones, to being a global bookshop, servicing a global clientele.  A Russian department is just a start – what about publishing from India and China, from South America, from France and Germany.  (And a dedicated Danish Crime section, of course.)

I’d be prepared to bet that sales densities would rise, and that Waterstones’ Piccadilly store could achieve new levels of world-wide fame.  Of course, a full global shipping service, easy transactions in multiple currencies, and access to the world’s pBook databases and eBooks files would also be essential, as would international events (with accompanying PR) and global village catering.  But I believe London could support a single, global book superstore – one that no longer defined itself not in terms of its UK customers.

Bookshops of the future, trading in a world where popular publishing is dominated by the eBook, will need to redefine themselves – typically by reference to their local communities.  Piccadilly’s community is the world – so, how about it?

Photo: ACDC Lighting