With the Frankfurt Book Fair underway, the industry is discussing literature's role in a digitized world. But some small UK stores are finding unique ways of selling traditional books - and beating out the big chains.
In an ever-changing market, booksellers have to get creative
In the film "Notting Hill," Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant certainly sparked romantic notions of bookshops in the West London district. The love story unfolded in the subdued atmosphere of a traditional book lover's haven - among the tomes cozily lining the shelves. But the film didn't dwell on the impact that big chain bookstores are having on smaller ones and it didn't show how independent publishers and retailers are turning over a new leaf in order to compete.
The chain shops, of course, offer cheaper books due to the economies of scale.
Smaller shops in the UK, however, are becoming inventive in their own offers, like serving up cups of tea which have literary references.
"This one has the first line of 'Black Beauty' round the edge," explains Felicity Rubinstein, co-owner of Lutyens and Rubinstein Bookshop just off the Portobello Road in Notting Hill Gate, as she points to the rim of the cup. "The first place I can well remember is a pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it," it says.
More books of fewer titles
When Grant and Roberts made "Notting Hill," e-books were just a distant dream
Another cup has the first line from "Jane Eyre" printed on it: "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day." The cups full of literary lore go on and on.
Rubinstein and her partner established their bookshop about a year ago because they felt the neighborhood didn't have a good independent one. And their literary tea cups aren't just a gimmick. The two female owners actively encourage locals and tourists to come in, browse and even hold informal meetings in their store, which was opened as an adjunct to their existing business, a literary agency. That's because both owners think the big chains just don't offer adequate service to more serious writers - and readers.
"The authors we represent are not particularly well-served by the trend in bookselling, which has gone towards selling vast quantities of a small number of titles," said Rubinstein. "Of those titles, many, many more books are being sold, but what it means is that fewer copies of the sort of writers we represent are being sold - fine writers. And in some cases it was harder and harder to get those authors published," she explained.
Lutyens and Rubinstein have very loyal customers who are willing to pay over the odds for books, so the shop doesn't really aim at the mass market. The shop owners are selective in the books they stock and are proud to be upholding the traditional role of the bookshop. It's a trend that has spread to other independent shops across the British capital.
The appeal of the look and feel
In Bloomsbury, Central London, home to one of the most famous literary groups in the world, Persephone Books is a shop devoted entirely to publishing and selling books by women. But passers-by do not compose most of the buyers, said managing director Nicola Beauman. "We're 80 percent mail order; 10 percent we distribute through other bookshops and 10 percent are people coming to the shop."
Good book tips bring back customers, small sellers say
While being on the spot where writer Virginia Woolf used to buy her bread contributes to the shop's success, Persephone Books is also flourishing due to its publishing arm.
Beauman said their customers buy Persephone Books because they like their look.
"If you like one of them, chances are you're going to like all of them," she added. "And that's both the way forward for us, and one that's been very successful until now. It's quite a niche - we have 22,000 people on our mailing list."
Book tips brings business
Although most independent bookshops are one-of-a-kind, some have gone on to open other branches. Brett Woolstonecroft, manager of Daunt Books in Marylebone, attributes their growth to mismanagement of the big chains.
"They've got away from having high-quality salespeople in their stores who perhaps have to be paid more to retain. They are at the heart of all good bookselling," said Woolstonecroft.
"The chains have taken a wrong turn, and it's one the independents have not taken," he noted. "We have benefitted from the poor state of the chains over the last five to 10 years. And that is the reason behind our growth, undoubtedly."
E-books haven't yet killed the book
Daunt Books, which specializes in travel books, now has six shops and is opening another one soon, closing a gap left in the market by the policies of the large chains - like offering advice.
"Certainly they've presented us with the opportunity," Woolstonecroft said. "Not providing actually what their customers really want, which is not always three-for-two offers and sometimes just a very clear pointing towards some interesting books: the books you won't find everywhere."
The special discounts that chain bookshops offer may attract summertime readers in droves. But developing customer loyalty and encouraging good writing has been left very much to the independents. As the line between fine writing and trashy novels gets ever wider, it seems likely that the small specialist bookshop will become even more popular.
Author: Sylvia Smith (als)
Editor: Kate Bowen