Amazon and the e-book have spelled doom for many bookshops, especially in the U.S. and the U.K. Hundreds have closed. But tomorrow in London, one of the world’s best known bookstores defies the trend: Foyles on Charing Cross Road is officially opening a new $60 million flagship store. Can it survive the digital onslaught?
“Some people think we’re mad. Some people think we’re very brave. Some people think we’re now going to reverse the trend back towards physical books and bricks and mortar book retailing, ” says Christopher Foyle, grandson of one of the store’s founders and the current chairman.
The early signs are encouraging. Even before the official opening, the new, four story bookshop was full of book-loving customers.
"I do love the atmosphere of bookshops... the calmness,” says Nina Muehlemann. "I feel it’s a luxury spending time here."
Simon Shaw said shopping in a book store is far more satisfying than doing it online. “It’s the serendipity of coming across something that you didn’t know you were looking for,” he said.
And Lila Burkeman spoke of her preference for the printed word: “I love books,” she said. “ I do have a computer, but there’s nothing like holding a book in your hands.”
Some publishing industry observers claim that these physical book lovers are a vanishing breed, and that eventually e-books will command a 95 percent share of the market. But Patrick O’Brien of Verdict Retail research isn’t so sure.
“We are seeing that the e-book market is really starting to mature already.” he says. “ So we do not believe that it’s going to destroy the physical book market in the near term. We think it could end up with a 50/50 split”
Foyles is calling its new flagship store “ the traditional bookshop of the future”. Ironically, since digital technology has been eating into its business, the company has equipped the new store with state-of-the-art digital equipment – including a smartphone system for guiding customers to the book they’re looking for. Christopher Foyle believes that high-tech and tradition will prove an irresistible combination, although there is one tradition he is eager to stamp out. Such was the chaos and the clutter of the old store, such was its status as a national institution , that book stealing became endemic and even respectable.
“I’ve even got a letter in the archive from one academic gentleman who bitterly resented being prosecuted for stealing vast quantities of books. He thought it was his right – as a poor academic – it was his God-given right to steal as many books from us as he possibly could,” says Foyle.
The new store is bristling with the latest security and surveillance equipment. Technology – a threat to physical books and bookshops – is fully deployed throughout the store to combat theft.