The last bookshop

Foyles, one of the bastions of the book trade, has a new home. Fired by memories of the darkest of corners of the strangest of shops, the Leisure Review took its barely controlled book habit to the Charing Cross Road to see whether this new flagship might be the saviour of the printed word.

Shining light: the new Foyles store is a beacon for bookselling

Despite the claims of management and business texts, it is rare to come across a genuine paradigm shift. However, the modern book trade is probably as good an example as you could find.

It is not hard to see why these might feel like the darkest of days for book sellers. Not since 1476, when Caxton arrived in London and set up his press to bang out copies of The Canterbury Tales and Le Morte d’Arthur to an astonished public has the book trade had to deal with change on this sort of scale. Half a millennium after the book trade came to Britain,
the digital age has dawned and paper is on the way out.

Sales figures released at the start of 2015 illustrated the scale of the problem. Nielsen BookScan showed that while the decline in sales of printed books in the UK slowed in 2014, sales value was down 1.3% to £1.4 billion and sales volume had dropped by 1.9% to 180 million books. Adult print fiction was down by 5.3% to £321 million with volume down by 7.8% to 50.7 million books. Hardback adult fiction was down by 11.6% and printed adult non-fiction also dropped by 4% to £586 million. At the end of January 2015 Waterstones, the UK’s biggest bookshop chain, reported an overall drop of 6% in sales on the whole year

But there was perhaps a suggestion of light, albeit a twinkling light, at the end of the tunnel over Christmas. Waterstones reported a 5% increase in sales over the Christmas period and Foyles reported an 8% rise. Both reported a decline in ebook sales. Waterstones’ whole-year figures were bleak but Blackwell’s, the academic bookseller with 550 employees, reported that it had at last shown a profit after a decade of losses. Long-drafted plans to emulate the business structure of John Lewis and make Blackwell’s an employee-owned business are being dusted off for implementation.

Perhaps all this shows is that we prefer to wrap something square at Christmas but Foyles’ management will be pleased to be have anything positive to grasp given that they have just invested a large amount of capital and a great deal of their history in a new store. In some respects the new Foyles flagship is not such a huge leap – they have moved next door, less than 100m down Charing Cross Road into the former St Martin’s School of Arts, and the  multi-level retail space filled with books is very familiar – but it is evident that the new premises reflect an updated approach to what it means to be in the book trade in the 21st century. It also represents a calculated risk for the Foyles group, which has put a lot of its resources, including the revenue from the original shop site and the sale of some other Soho properties, into making Foyles a destination for book-lovers.

Speaking to the Guardian in the summer of 2014 when the new store was being prepared for opening, Christopher Foyle, who still owns 65% of what is still (but for 10%) a family-owned business, explained why the investment and a certain change of approach was required. “Even if there is a continued gradual migration from the physical book to the ebook and from bookstores to the internet,” he said, “there will still be a major market for physical books from physical stores and our ambition is to get a larger share of what might be a smaller market.”

For quite a few of its long-term regulars, the thought of Foyles as a modern and efficient retail operation competing in the marketplace would be anathema. In the 1930s Foyles was established as an essential part of literary London by Christina Foyle, Christopher’s aunt, and the shop remained a byword for antiquated practices and wilful eccentricity until well into the 1990s. The unique selling point of Foyles was that even if you could find the book you wanted, which was unlikely, it was then bizarrely difficult to negotiate the process by which to pay for it. While Christina Foyle was in charge the Foyles accounts department still used hand-written ledgers and veterans of the time still swap stories of how they sometimes pocketed their chosen volume because they just could not face the prolonged battle to pay for it.

When Christopher Foyle took over in 1999 he found himself at the helm of a failing business in which sales and revenue were falling rapidly. For all the Foyles’ history and the affection the store retained among its customers, it seemed there was little future for it as a viable business, even without the profound challenges of the digital marketplace. Change was the only option and Foyles was able to take its place among its bookseller peers remarkably quickly, retaining much of its character while making it rather easier to find, browse and pay for a huge selection of stock. The incorporation of space for Ray’s Jazz music shop, a café and exhibition space brought innovation and footfall while retaining the individuality of the Foyles brand.

The new shop is the very model of a modern major retailer. A huge space for books is arranged over four floors, all arranged around a central stairwell lit by daylight from above. Floor five is given over to a gallery and the café, while floor six is a space for events; the advertised programme shows that this is an important part of the store’s life. For anyone familiar with the old Foyles it feels familiar but slightly compact; where once the floors stretched out, they now stretch up but it still feels like home to any book-lover looking to lose a couple of hours among shelves of reassuringly familiar or ineluctably unfamiliar subjects.

Among the many displays, offers and exhortations to read and buy, Foyles also offers much more than books. With the galleries, the events, the dining and drinking, this is about opportunities to engage with books and each other. It is a celebration of printed culture but it offers people reasons beyond a book to visit a bookshop: come for a coffee, stay for an event; come for a gift, visit the gallery; come for the vibe but always leave with a book.

The old store and some of its atmosphere will be missed by some of the Foyles aficionados but plenty more will welcome its efforts to embrace the culture of books as well as the business of bookselling. If the printed book has a viable future as part of high-street retail, bookshops are likely to look like this; and as long as there are people who understand that reading is about more than just words on a page then there will be bookshops.

The upheaval of the Crossrail project has marred the top end of the Charing Cross Road for the past couple of years and will not have helped footfall to the new store but at least Foyles seems to be fighting hard for its future. As the Leisure Review’s visit drew to a close, we made a few purchases as part of our contribution to economic sustainability. At first glance the young woman on the till looked like a bookseller from central casting – glasses, neat hair, bookish demeanour – but as she smiled and handed us our books we noticed her arms gleaming bright with sleeve tattoos that looked like illuminated pages from a Victorian account of a natural history expedition, the beautifully coloured flora and fauna climbing and leaping across her skin. As we headed into Soho we took heart that neither the book nor Foyles seem ready to be buried just yet.



The Leisure Review, February 2015

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