Hope in bookshops

There are reasons to look optimistically on their future

A bookshop is a place to buy books – but its greatest value is the shopping experience it offers rather than the books it sells. In-person trades are also exchanges of human contact. This turns a physical marketplace into a crucible of culture, and not just of commerce.

The attraction of bookshops has always been that they offer more than their utilitarian function: the joy of browsing lovingly stacked shelves, unexpected reading tips and chance encounters make for a tactile and intellectual experience in its own right. Until recently, product and experience were effectively bundled: it was easier, faster and no costlier to buy books from a bookshop than directly from publishers. Booksellers could charge enough to cover the cost of running the shop, and thereby to sustain the environment that bookshop patrons enjoy so much.

The technological facts requiring this bundling forced the book to subsidise the bookselling. This bliss for bookshop lovers was paid for by those who only wanted to get hold of some reading – local newspapers’ grip on classified ads subsidised their journalism in a similar way. It was too good to last. When new technology loosened the bundling, cost-conscious customers pried the shopping away from the shops. Three nails in the coffin for traditional bookshops were lower printing costs (which make it hard to sustain a fixed margin), the online bookshop and the continuing disruption of the e-book.

An activity that cannot survive without a technologically imposed subsidy has a dubious right to life. Those nostalgic for the old-style bookshop must pray that the service it offers has a market in its own right. They would not have taken heart from the bankruptcy of Borders in the US and the UK. However then came this month’s offer by Liberty Media for Barnes & Noble, and Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut’s bid for Waterstones. If no phoenix moment, their bids give hope that bookshops still have some life in them.

And why should they not? If the joys of bookshops were once luxuries that buyers would not pay for once unbundling was possible, luxury services are also what people spend more on as economies grow. This includes experiencing beautifully arranged and expertly staffed marketplaces. The London bookshops of James Daunt, whom Mr Mamut wants to run Waterstones, show that books sold with quality service command higher prices.

A risk is that some free-ride on service, then turn to the internet for the book. But it could work the other way. B&N inspires many customers to buy e-books in store. Still, price margins cannot be too large: bookshops are more likely to thrive where book-loving workers are plentiful and rents low. Even such places may have fewer shops than they once had – but those left could become better than ever.

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