Framing #FutureFoyles in London

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From February 19, 2013

An excerpt from my series of Ether for Authors columns on pub­lish­ing at Publishing Perspectives, appear­ing Tuesdays.


Framing #FutureFoyles in London

Here is one thing no one will deny about the events hashtagged #FutureFoyles in London: here was unabashed dedication, enthusiasm, love and hope — loud, rackety, even strident love and hope — all transacted in a joyous din under the beams of Foyles’ third-floor gallery.

Workshop participants at Foyles on February 15 await the session’s introductory comments.

On the 11th and 15th of February, Philip Jones and his Bookseller team and Miriam Robinson, marketing director for the hulking, fading landmark Foyles bookstore in Charing Cross Road, held six-hour workshops intended to shake loose the best ideas for the “bookshop of the future.”

Foyles is to move next door into the more capacious former St. Martin’s College of Art space. At first glance, this suggests that the old rooms-and-rooms-of-books-and-books format is yielding no quarter.

The new digs (to open next year) might mean simply more floor space across which to fling that “six-and-a-half kilometers of books” touted by print-lovers who fear the ebook storm troopers are about to burst in and confiscate their cookbooks.

As it turns out, the reality is more complicated. Noisy, too.

The last quiet moment anyone can remember from Friday’s session is Foyle’s chieftain Sam Husain, making a soft-spoken, gentleman’s welcome to the group before handing off to Robinson and Alex Lifschutz, he of Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, architects. Lifschutz barely held off the cheery cacophony of the brainstorming summit, himself, long enough to show some archival slides to us, wave some floor plans and elevations at us, and — with well-placed bias — remind us that as Beirut was once the Paris of the Middle East, Foyles was once the Montmartre of London’s bookselling business.

Foyles’ Miriam Robinson, left, talks with Covent Garden Area Trust and Ambassador Theatre Group board member Christina Smith. Behind them, center, is architect Alex Lifschutz.

I’d just walked down Denmark Street, in fact, on my way from Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and here was one music shop after the next jammed with instruments, sheet music, photos of visits by greats and near-greats, bars celebrating the sweetest sounds of decades. Denmark Street is every bit as chaotic and bohemian as a literary ghetto might be alphabetized and wholesome, were Foyles to try — note my verb, try — regaining that hub-hearty approach in its new incarnation. And the roar of Robinson’s round-robin of ideas on Friday was so upbeat and summer-campy that it may seem sacrilege of me to suggest that the future home of Foyles might not come-hither its fans as easily as do those grungy little guitar stores.

Foyles is a very big independent store groaning as the marketplace hovers daily higher above the high street, in cyberspace. It has its flagship corner location in Charing Cross and, by my count, five other locations, the farthest afield in Bristol. Exactly as with bookstores in the States, its business isn’t walking away, it’s clicking away. Londoners are shopping in Seattle. Amazonia can outdo even Foyles’ reported stock of some 200,000 physical titles. And Amazon delivers. And Amazon offers great prices. And Amazon has achieved stunning heights of customer service. We all know this story.

So back at ground level, if you give them great sandwiches and colorful markers, bright, engaged, attractive members of London’s publishing community will convene and have a high old time shouting “a bar on every floor!” and “world-class toilets!” to each other, as they did last week. They’ll eagerly help you, in other words, try to think of super ideas for Foyles’ “bookshop of the future.” And God bless them, every one, for the zeal they brought to their red-draped tables, I salute them and was honored to be accepted by them during my visit.

Post-sensible shoes on Miriam Robinson of Foyles.

But there are real, systemic, new-era dilemmas here. And, safely back in the States, I’m too far from Foyles for the dynamic, charming Robinson to chase me down Shaftesbury Avenue in her marvelous yellow shoes. So I’m going to wrap myself in the Ether now and point out that — as much as I loved the ebullience of the Foyles workshop — it did not, at least on Friday, solve The Bookstore Problem. Now, don’t worry: Robinson is as tough a cookie as you or me. She knows perfectly well that a big “eureka!” didn’t land in the middle of the room. And this does not mean that Foyles won’t arrive in its new space, happy and glorious, long to reign over a new wrinkle in bookselling for eons ahead. All might be well. Or not. And I want to tell you about how things played out when these savvy folks—who do know The Bookstore Problem—took Foyles up on its smart bid to think before it dives into the new spot.

The Foyles workshop teams were supplied with floor plans from architects Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands.

Let’s take a moment to note the pleasure with which some observed and participated in the exercise. Foyles’ handsome partner in the effort, The Bookseller, has a piece out from its Lisa Campbell, in which she rightly writes:

Booksellers have praised the Foyles bookshop workshops as “inspiring” as the company said it was preparing to sit down with architects and plan the new store…Foyles’ head of marketing Miriam Robinson described the workshops as “inspiring” and said she was looking forward to compiling a detailed list of all the suggestions for the new store based on the ideas generated from across the two days.

I particularly like the fact that the canny Robinson next will present to the public, via Foyles’ site, a selection of the many ideas that were whipped up in the room during the total twelve hours of workshopping — by what I’m guessing approaches some 200 participants overall.

It’s good to expose to the public to this process, and, by association, The Bookstore Problem. Who isn’t tired of the dumb-as-a-post book shopper who seems to know nothing about the plight of the industry that he or she patronizes? Whatever Robinson and her folks can do along the way to help the wider community understand what a struggle this is, I’m all for it.

One team at Foyles’ “bookshop of the future” workshop on Friday illustrated for the rest of the group some of the customer benefits that might be included in a bookstore membership.


Booksellers Association president and Jaffe & Neale bookshop owner Patrick Neale said he had taken many ideas which he hoped to apply to his own business in Chipping Norton. He said: “I thought it was really inspiring. I believe the future is mixed format and everybody there did too. There was a lot of blue sky thinking and the message around loyalty and ‘stickiness’—getting customers to stick with you—is really important.”

(1) It’s easy to forget the books, and curiously alluring to imagine all sorts of other attractions. You’ll see me fall into this, myself, in a bit below. (2) Bookstores may not be doing what we think they’re so good at doing. We’re going to keep going a bit on this topic in this edition of Ether for Authors because Robinson’s good effort at Foyles deserves it and because there are not-so-subtle elements of this story, the bookstore and natural selection of the marketplace that have to do with so much that we discussed in New York last week at O’Reilly’s formidable Tools of Change Conference, at its all-new Author (R)evolution Day, and at the preceding Book^2 Camp, the “unconference” that annually precedes TOC.


Join us for the rest of this column at Publishing Perspectives.
Ether for Authors: Framing #FutureFoyles in London

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