Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Why I don't use book shops much

I usually buy books online. I tend to get scolded at dinner parties for the damage I'm thereby doing to my friendly neighbourhood bookstore. I fear that bookstores, friendly or otherwise, may be damaging themselves without help from me. On Radio Four this morning I heard an extract from a book called "The Junior Officers Reading Club". Having your book read on Radio Four is the publishing equivalent of a Radio One record of the week and therefore you'd expect the trade to be at least slightly poised.

Finding myself in the King's Road this afternoon I went into a branch of one of Britain's biggest book retailers, a place I might reasonably expect to find such a book. I enquired on the ground floor. Years working on the other side of the counter have taught me how to be a good customer. My presentation goes like this. "They're reading a book on Radio Four this week. [I'll confess, I half anticipated that I wouldn't have to go any further than this. I was wrong. ] It's called something like The Junior Officers Reading Club." There's a slight flicker of recognition on his face but he has to look it up on their computer system (which probably means he's looking on Amazon). He tells me it's downstairs in History. Obvious place, really, for a book about serving in the army in contemporary Afghanistan. The tyranny of categories kicks in, which is half the problem for book retailers, as it is for record retailers. You don't just have to work out where it is. You have to work out where they think it is which is based on what they think it is. These are not problems for you and Google.

I go down to History unaccompanied. If I'd asked after the Bovril in my local Sainsbury the assistant would have taken me to it. That's how they roll. Seemingly this does not apply to the spending of £16.99. I look – and bear in mind I'm a world-class looker – on the table where the big-selling military books are displayed. No sign. I ask another assistant. I've been sent down from upstairs etc etc. Again there's that faint gleam of recognition from him. I'm starting to wonder if they coach that gleam. He looks on the system which assures him that the book is present in the store. He takes me over to the place where it is assigned to live. He looks without success. He goes back to the desk to check whether it's actually been "put out" (because there's a whole world of difference between in-stock and on-sale). As he does so I look down and see the book. One copy, which means either there have been lots of sales and the staff haven't noticed or they have ordered one copy which suggests their buying could be keener.

Then I thank him. How English am I? What am I thanking him for? He didn't know what I was after or help me find it. In fact most of my time in the shop I was dealing with the difficulties of being in the shop. In a shop they've often hidden what you want behind lots of things they think you want. It's a bit like going to the office. Most of the time in the office you're dealing with problems that only arise because you're in the office. On the occasions I complain in a shop I invariably end up saying "you are confusing your problems with mine. If you hadn't introduced a system to make your life easier you might be making my life easier." Anyway, I bought the book. More fool me. I should have just ordered it on Amazon. It would probably have been home ahead of me.

A few years ago I did a presentation at a meeting of the Institute of PRs. Don't laugh. I concluded by saying that in the near future all providers of information would be replaced by just two things. One was Google, an unparalleled way of pulling information towards you. The other was what I like to call the House Hippie. House Hippies know everything. They are Google with skin. When I worked in retail there were a few House Hippies. They were often terrible with customers but they knew more about the stock than the most sophisticated retrieval system. If something was a Radio Four book they bloody well knew. I stand by what I said, particularly when it applies to PRs, who seem to recruit a remarkable number of people who have a passion for anything but communication. They long ago stopped informing people of anything. In this maybe they are just recognising the reality of the world against which I came up this afternoon. Any information of any interest you find out yourself. The only people worth consulting are experts. And if a shop has a range of stock which is so wide that the staff can't be expert in it, they mustn't be surprised if we go to the digital shelf and help ourselves.

(This over-long post was written in a hospital corridor waiting for a family member's x-ray to come back. Slight fracture.)


  1. Having struggled in vain to get any of our books even on to the bookshelves of the major bookshops in the UK I can only agree with you.

    Whilst the sense of publishing books in this day and age is more than questionable. When you have finally gone to the bother of finding something decent to publish, a nice cover pic, a printer to print it, distribution etc etc. You still then have to crawl to the buyers of the various high street stores to even give up the smallest shelf space for your, whilst not earth shattering but better than many, titles.

    The solution of course is to go to Amazon, who will more often than not get your book to the people who want it, at a fair % mind. Or you can simply go to a decent website, say for example and get it potentially cheaper still.

  2. I wholehreartedly agree.The service in many shops is something now that must be tolerated instead of utilised.
    However having 3 small children does not allow me the luxury of shopping online.
    Unless,the children know what they are looking for,it can be difficult picking a childrens book online unless you are relying on reviews,good for adults but not always great for children.Its fine to buy a copy of "where the wild things" are online because you know what you are getting.
    Itunes lets you have a sample of music,amazon lets you have (on occassion the first 2 or 3 pages).Nothing can convince you more that you are making the right purchase than the "gleam" in the childs eyes.This unfortunately is why I will be venturing into high street booksellers for the near future and going into a section that looks as though it has been hit by a tornado - which of course it has - lots of little ones aged between.......

  3. I was early for a meeting on monday and caught the book of the week on Radio 4. Normally I'm not one for military memoirs but this was different and quite riveting. A short review on here or in Word perhaps?

    As for the state of bookshops I couldn't agree more. 20 years ago I went into a major bookstore and was only half way through the "I'm looking for a book about ..." question when the assistant interrupted with, "Ah yes that'll be..." and walked me over to the shelf. Impressive enough for me to be quoting it 20 years later. More recently the high street stores have gone the way of (sorry!) the high street music stores where the House Hippies were amongst the first to disappear and "genre confusion" made it almost impossible to find anything not resolutely mainstream.

    The House Hippie in my local Our Price in the 90s was a well known Zep-ologist whose standing amongst junior colleagues was built on his ability to quote the issue numbers for their entire catalogue, even discriminating between first release and digitally remastered CDs. I last saw him in our local big town, working in Zavvi and walking around with arms full of Springsteen reissues.

    Unfortunately I see this as a trend that goes far beyond retail. In many walks of life it seems that quick, easy access to information is sidelining knowledge hard-earned and perhaps more deeply seated.

  4. You misunderstand the nature of a local bookstore. If it has more than one floor, it cannot be such. Only a ground floor with the owner in near constant attendance counts. Our fomer local book shop by Kew Gardens station is just such and the staff there know everything they have and would have dealt with the Radio 4 question easily. They can see the entire stock from the cash desk.

    Moving north of the Thames, the loss of that shop at the end of our road has been the biggest drag.

  5. It sounds to me as if the staff were as helpful as they could be. The key difference between a large branch of a certain book retailer, and although I worked for them for more than 15 years believe me there is no love lost between us, is that the bookshop probably stocks a higher number of product lines, and those lines are ever changing. Of course it would be preferable to have personal service, and this is something which I always drilled into my own staff, but was there anyone else at the upstairs till? It may well be that this bookseller couldn't leave their post for fear of finding half their stock missing by the time they got back. The P+Ls in those shops don't support what I ever considered to be adequate staffing.
    Media coverage of books is a funny thing. There is no consistency between publication dates, reviews, media serialisations and embargos on display (hence, I assume the bookseller's checking to see if the book was in stock and could be sold). Ordering in this large chain was largely dependent on head office at the time I left, though I understand plans were afoot to give more control back to the shops. And the history section is a perfectly reasonable place to stock the title as 'military', whether historical or contemporary, is a sub-section of history in pretty much all bookshops.
    Perhaps there was a genuine reason for your unhappiness with the serice in this case, though I can't find it in your post. As I mentioned, I have no reason great affection for this company but I can't see what they did wrong. Maybe you're just understandably grumpy out of concern for your family member. I hope they're not in pain and get weel soon.

  6. Simon9:24 am

    Not sure amazon would have been the answer here as they are temporarily out of stock of the book.

  7. Paul K9:46 am

    I think we need nowadays to differentiate between two roles of bookshops - and accept that one of them may be coming to an end.

    The role which is ending is the simple sale of a specific book. It's rather like travel agents selling a specific flight; there are simpler and cheaper ways of doing that online. And few of us are going to revert to those old habits.

    However, the role which may take over is the one of browsing, of encouraging, of advising - of bookshops as more akin to libraries, but with a sales function at the end rather than a stamped ticket. When you've been advised by a good assistant, browsed through the alternatives, perhaps read a little in a comfy armchair, the likelihood is you will buy that book there and then, rather than go home, order it and wait.

    Bookshops are part of the entertainment industry. They can offer us a great deal, if they acknowledge the decline of their old role, but the enormous potential of their new one.

  8. There are two great bookshops in Crouch End. One is a posh 'no mobile phones allowed' type that sells all your obvious classics, modern classics and so on.

    The other is a recently opened 'depository' style shop called 'World of Books' with a naff yellow and blue font. However, its book stock and pricing is unbeatable. Loads of interesting books are £3 or £5 - as cheap as online and large, interesting hard backs are £6, £8 £10 – and all are well placed to catch your eye. He must be making a tiny margin on profits but it worked on me. I bought two (highly disparate) books the other day after just popping in to have a browse. I'll go back again. The owner was even singing along Mr Tambourine Man - it's grim oop North London.

    So for £3 and a brisk walk over the hill, I can find interesting books I wouldn't otherwise come across online because it wouldn’t have occurred to me to look for them. This is the joy of bookshop searching. The large, two floors or more places though, are slightly rubbish though yes.

  9. I've often wished for Amazon in bookshops - not to make the purchase but that I miss:

    * Search - I'm crap at remembering titles but I normally remember enough to search for it, but not enough to explain to a staffer.

    * Reviews - with technical books readers opinions are crucial.

    Although I suppose I could use the magic internets on my phone these days.

  10. When I were a lad working in a bookshop, there was a publication called 'Books in the Media', which was a weekly newsletter to which bookshops could subscribe, and for a pittance they'd get a listing of all the scheduled references to books on TV and Radio in the forthcoming week (such as the R4 Book At Bedtime), and the 'unexpected ones' (such as someone referring to an Orson Welles biography in passing on a film review programme). Granted, this was back in the pre-internet age, but I would have thought it was a no-brainer for such a service to have survived in some electronic form.

  11. Paul K - you've hit the nail on the head.

    Obviously, these days, if you know exactly what you want and want no more than that, you can't beat Amazon. But that's a purely functional operation, like going to the petrol station. You don't enjoy wasting some time browsing the diesel when you go in for some 4 star.
    And it's not so pleasant meeting somebody before going to the pictures at the BP.

    Anyone remember what you had to go through to buy a book from Foyles not so long ago?
    If I remember rightly, they shelved by publisher -- so you could find the same author writing about the same topic in two different parts of the floor.
    Once you had made your choice, you took the book to a fellow behind a desk, where it was taken from you and you were given a chit, thence to another desk to pay, finally to return with your receipt to collect the book from the first desk, and off you went home.

    Not terribly efficient, but charmingly idiosyncratic. Unless you were in a rush.

  12. When I applied for my Saturday job in the record dept. of WH Smith way back in 1978 I actually got questioned by the department manager about not just my taste and knowledge of pop music but what I knew about Classical and Country too (not much, but enough to get me the job).

    That seems pretty stiff requirements for a mere high street Smith's but at least it meant you could actually, you know, help customers, even if they were after some Berlin Philharmonic recording they'd heard on Radio 3.

    A few years ago I was in a Border's in the States and a woman came in looking for a copy of 'Lord of The Flies' and the kid behind the counter didn't know where to find it because he didn't know who'd written it. I had to tell her.

  13. Generally I'm Amazon all the way with books - how can any bookshop (including charities) compete with new or used starting at one earth penny..yes, there's shipping to factor on but the joy of a one penny book offsets any stealth charge.Last bargain bagged - Dave Thompson's I Hate New Music in hardback for under a fiver

    Having said that I do use my local, The Book Inn - Leigh On Sea, who guarantee next day delivery of any title..

  14. Paul K9:33 am

    Can I just add to my previous comment, by saying something about the forthcoming development which will blow this whole thing out of the water?

    The Espresso book machine is soon to be installed in its first (bookshop) locations. This machine will allow you to choose any digitally-stored book, and have it downloaded, printed out and bound on the spot.

    Now, what will THAT do to the whole issue?

  15. Any new insights on Jacko? I just can't get enough of it.

  16. I have to agree with the distinction between functional, efficient book purchasing (Amazon is best) and the joy of browsing (Waterstone's Piccadilly is awesome, though not in the league of Powell's in Portland, Oregon, the greatest bookshop in the world). But don't forget how bloody brilliant libraries are. You can wander round and browse, you can (these days), search the stock online, order your choice from all the libraries in the region, and have it delivered to your local library. And it's free! Unless, as occasionally happens, they don't have what you want, in which case they'll generally order it for a couple of quid. It's not quick, granted, but it's unbeatable value.
    Libraries - genius!