February 4, 2011 10:04 pm

Perfectly proportioned bookshops

Chain book retailers are failing because they have grown too large

When Barack Obama was inaugurated two years ago I had high hopes that his swearing-in would be followed by a radical wave of reforms at the various departments that govern US affairs. I had visions of clever mergers between bloated law enforcement agencies, new brand extensions and programmes at the State Department (the Department for Getting Out and Seeing More of the World, the “One Passport for Every Child” initiative and the Department for Building Better-Looking Embassies) and a range of liveability initiatives.

I had the highest hopes for the Department of Perfect Proportions. Influencing policy across a range of other committees and departments, the DoPP would have been charged with rethinking everything from the width of roads to the scale of cities to food portions on dinner plates. One of the most important DoPP initiatives would have been a business programme to get chief executives and small-scale entrepreneurs to rethink the physical size of their operations and challenge the ingrained notion that a bigger office is a better place to work or a supersize store is a superior place to shop.

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Tyler Brûlé

With the right communications and global benchmarks, the secretary of this department could have become a star of the administration by helping businesses reduce their footprints, cut rents, create more intimate work environments and more human-scale shopping experiences. The Secretary of Perfect Proportions could have brought about a cultural shift in consumer habits and helped avert some of the issues plaguing many US businesses.

The past year has, for instance, seen the business wires busily filing stories about the imminent collapse/ restructuring/bankruptcy of the US’s biggest book retailers. Most of the knee-jerk analysis has blamed the economy, Amazon and its Kindle and the rise of other e-readers as the reason for troubles on the shop floor. Oddly, little has been written about the shop-floor itself and the simple fact that there’s too much of it.

Ask most people to paint a picture of their perfect bookstore and it probably involves a pair of bay windows housing a selection of titles specially selected by the shop’s long-serving staff. Through the front door (complete with a brass bell) there are well-worn harvest tables with stacks of new releases, solid classics, cash-generating genres and obscure but wonderfully readable selections from loyal customers. The oak floors are dark and well worn and they probably creak and sag a little. There’s a wonderful scent of various papers, ink, glue, linen, card-stock and toxic varnishes, and in certain corners of the shop a jazzy tune can be heard through crackly old speakers. Scattered about are armchairs for children to read and pensioners to pause (they’re not meant as a satellite office for people to do research or conduct business) and there are plenty of decently paid staff (read: not minimum wage) to advise on cookbooks for the helpless, picture books to calm hyper tots, and travel guides to less-explored corners of Turkey.

The male staff wear cosy cardigans and the women favour loafers, kilts and turtlenecks for an overall effect that says these people look like they know what they’re talking about and therefore I’ll buy whatever they suggest. Perhaps the most important detail is that you can see all the way to the back of the shop from the front door but once inside you discover there are enough cosy nooks and corners to get lost in an absorbing first chapter. In short, the bookstore that people dream about is small-scale, warm and welcoming and personal. American and British retail chains that are suffering are anything but.

Scan the parking lots of many US malls and there’s a good chance you’ll spot a red brick or yellow stucco box belonging to a book retailer bolted on to a bigger yellow stucco box that anchors a host of other similar looking boxes with backlit logos, no windows and zero personality. Inside the book box, the experience is bewildering and alienating. The lighting is bright and harsh, there’s a vague scent of popcorn and there’s not a sales person or shelf-stocker in sight.

The store is so big and devoid of any hint of cosiness that you feel there’s little need to return because you never locked eyes with a sales person, never found a welcoming corner to linger and browse, didn’t stumble on any literary surprises and ultimately didn’t connect as a customer.

It’s for this reason that the big-box booksellers are failing and not the rise of e-books and various backlit screens. Just as the news-stand is failing publishers of newspapers and magazines with their convenience store approach to selling news, chain book retailers on both sides of the Atlantic have grown too large and those massive sales floors can only boast a heavy monthly rent rather than footfall.

If ever there was a time for a good editor in this sector, it’s now.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle

tyler.brule@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/brule

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