"I think that booksellers could learn a lot from other retailers," said Siôn Hamilton, the retail operations director of Foyles in London. Just a year ago, Foyles opened its new flagship store at 107 Charing Cross Road. Hailed by the company as the "bookshop of the future," the store features a huge, open atrium, a full-service cafe, an art gallery and a multi-purpose events space, along with floors and floors of books. Hamilton was instrumental in designing the store, and he sat down with Shelf Awareness recently for a conversation about his inspirations, the place of the bookshop in modern society and how the new store has fared so far.
"Take a decent stationery shop," mused Hamilton, who studied other kinds of retailers while designing the store. "If you're selling notebooks, all you've got is your display. So you have to think really cleverly about merchandising. I think as booksellers we do a good job, but I don't think we're necessarily as on it as other forms of retail."
In February 2013, Foyles hosted two much-publicized workshops to discuss what the bookshop of the future would consist of. Authors, librarians, booksellers, publishing professionals and many others attended the events. According to Hamilton, it was an invaluable experience for not only testing out the store's own ideas but also fielding suggestions from the public. One that jumped out at Hamilton in particular was an attendee's suggestion to put a Yo! Sushi–style conveyor belt of books into the new store.
|Siôn Hamilton on the Foyles staircase
"That was the one that made everyone laugh in the workshop," recalled Hamilton. "It was really funny. But there was something about it that I just couldn't shake."
While going up an escalator in a London Underground station one day, he realized that he could keep the spirit of the conveyor belt idea intact by using the long staircase along the four floors of the flagship's atrium. As people walk up or down the staircase and pass the books displayed along the inside wall of staircase, "you're the conveyor belt," he said. "It's been very, very successful. We've gotten lots of positive feedback from customers."
Hamilton encourages his staff constantly to experiment with and evaluate displays. By getting displays right, Hamilton asserted, booksellers can convert readers to new genres and even introduce people to reading. He's learned over the years that how books are displayed is just as important as the books themselves.
"That sort of field of dreams thing doesn't exist," he said. "I think sometimes booksellers think, if I just get the right stock and put it right there, it'll be fine. My intuition is, after 10-odd years [at Foyles], that display, lighting, things that other retailers would take as no-brainers are really important. Sometimes as booksellers we don't pay enough attention to making sure displays are as welcoming and inviting as possible."
While designing the flagship store, Hamilton hoped to imbue it with a sort of social hum and energy that can be found in places like art galleries and museums. Putting the cafe, events space and art gallery all near each other at the top of the building, he said, helped the store feel like a vibrant, social space.
"There's a little background hum that puts an energy in you," said Hamilton. "You feel like you're socially involved in something. You're not on your own."
That type of social interaction, the feeling that a customer is in a "marketplace of ideas," is in Hamilton's view a big reason why bookshops continue to exist. Another is the type of serendipitous discovery that comes from browsing a carefully thought-out display or from chatting with a bookseller. Hamilton recalled that when he was growing up in South Wales, he had to take the train into the big city to find the sorts of books that he wanted to read. A teenager in that position now could just order all his books online.
"So the question you ask is, why am I coming to a bookshop?" posed Hamilton. "It has to be that serendipity. It has to be because I like touching the physical objects. And it has to be a social thing, doesn't it?"
Since the flagship store opened, Hamilton has seen sales go up. The biggest trend that Foyles has noted, Hamilton reported, is selling more general, commercial titles to a broader base of people. Although the flagship only moved down the street, it's already attracting a wider range of customers.
"There's a younger demographic," said Hamilton. "More tastemaking kind of people are turning up than before."
Shortly before opening the flagship, Foyles opened a new store in the Waterloo train station. That store, Hamilton said, though small, is working beautifully. "It's such a strong bookshop," he continued. "I've been really, really impressed and surprised by the range of titles we can shift there. It's a spot of calm in the station. We even get the station staff in there browsing."
At all of its locations, Foyles is pushing its staff to speak to customers more, to "just chat to them." It's about making customers feel as welcomed as possible, Hamilton explained. And talking with customers can, of course, lead to sales, but it's about more than that: the whole process of handselling provides customers with a story.
"They want a story," he said. "Sometimes a customer wants a story because a book is a personal item. It's that magic, isn't it? That's what you want to carry home with you in your pocket." --Alex Mutter