Foyles BookShop Workshops [REPORT]

Gin palaces, children’s hidey holes, book delivery chutes and outdoor touchscreens were just some of the ideas that sprung from last week’s Foyles Bookshop Workshops.

On Monday and Friday afternoon, representatives from the publishing industry and beyond ascended to the gallery room of Foyles flagship store to discuss the challenges and opportunities of the future.

Come Spring 2014, Foyles will relocate next door to 107-109 Charing Cross Road, the former Central St. Martin’s building, an altogether larger and more ambitious space. Amidst the flapjack, felt tips and blue sky thinking, there was a very real concern of how to make this work – Foyles have been in redundancy talks and the printed book trade is in trouble. To me it almost felt like a great call to arms, an assembly of creative minds to combat the mega-bot juggernaut of online retail – Amazon – and reinvent the high street bookshop.

Introductions from Foyles’ CEO Sam Husain, marketing director Miriam Robinson and Alex Lifschutz, architect from Lifschutz, Davidson Sandilands, invited us to embrace the way that bookselling is changing and how it has evolved throughout history, from outdoor stalls to market halls to boutiques. Lifschutz thanked Foyles for giving them the ‘best job in the world’ – a sure indication of how much we hold our bookshops dear and are rooting for them to survive and thrive. Now is not a time to be stuck in our ways.

We sat down in small groups to discuss one of three topics given to us (Discovery and Choice; Bookshops as Cultural Destinations; Diversification of Products and Services) and there was certainly no shortage of ideas. My group was a fantastically mixed bag; there was Philip Downer (former CEO of Borders UK, retail consultancy expert and owner of new store ‘Calliope’), a marketing and publicity co-ordinator from the Tate, a librarian from the British Library, a Faber Academy employee, an educational publisher – and me (an editorial assistant in trade non-fiction).

Having a retail expert on board was certainly a bit of a #win but every group’s discussions were wide-ranging (often ranging widely off brief) and lively. There were some running themes such as the flexibility of the store space – they have plenty of it in the new location – and the need to engage with a customer’s needs and lifestyle.

Questions we needed to tackle included:

  • How can a cultural experience translate to sales?
  • Can technology help us to maintain discoverability while reducing actual books on shelves?
  • How can a diverse product range and extra services exist in a bookshop with integrity?
  • How can the space be used to empower organic, community- and publisher-led activity?

It was fun to indulge in the scope of possibility (i.e. abseiling book-fetchers and location-tracking hats) but ultimately there were some serious points made about the changing demands of the consumer, what we are willing to pay for and the level of value that we expect from a high street retailer.

Crossrail is going to bring a new swell of footfall in the area, an opportunity to tempt passers-by and possibly regenerate the area into a literary destination. Selfridges was hailed as an example of successful modern retailing – built on brand heritage but utterly current, visually enticing and adaptable to changing needs. Could Foyles be the cultural bookselling brand equivalent? Might inspiration be taken from those initiatives making cultural headway such as Rich Mix and the Ideas Store?

Many chose to play around with the concept of enhanced customer service to add value – arriving in a Foyles taxi, basement childcare, a cloakroom, a members’ lounge and a degree of ‘retail theatre’ – while others picked social media as a fertile field for integration. Sharing purchases online, displaying customer photos in store and interactive touchscreens were popular proposals. Competing with online selling was a rather thornier issue (Philip Downer echoed James Daunt’s comparison of them as the devil) and I think that the angle suggested by some of the groups was the convincing one – what can only Foyles do and what can they do best? Maybe diversifying services won’t lack integrity if the whole collective agenda and transformation of Foyles changes?

There were a lot of open-ended ideas. Staff will have plenty to mull over, filter through and work out what can be realistically achieved. Personally, I hope that the bar on every floor idea comes to fruition.

After five hours of intensive discussing, pitching, re-imagining and saving the bookshop future, it was time for a well-deserved glass(/es) of wine. I ended the day feeling inspired and as Miriam summed up – ‘overwhelmed by the support, creativity and enthusiasm of everyone’.

I only hope that the era of nostalgia for cherished bookshops in decline is over, and that Foyles will become that pioneer of the exciting future that it so desperately needs and wants to be.

If you have ideas you can share them here.

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