Blackwells is one of my favourite spots in Oxford: the big Waterstones on the corner is another. Bookshops are the place I go when I feel lost. When I don’t know what to do with myself or what direction I should be heading, walking into a shop filled with books is my therapy of choice.
Part of that might be my inner English Literature geek being thrilled that I’m allowing her to escape, even as an Economics student in the middle of term. Bookshops have always had a calming influence on me and I like to walk out with a newfound book I can take back to college and read for an afternoon.
Roaming along the bookshelves, as they stretch around the shop, forces me to slow down and take a deep breath. Take it from me, booksellers can stare just as well, or better, than a librarian if you go above the average speed. Instead you’re expected to wander around with a wayward, yet determined, purpose as you search for the book you either need, want, or don’t know you need yet.
For me, the cover is important to get a feel for what the book is going to be like or how the marketing team wants you to imagine it. To save me from making an unwelcome choice, I check out the blurb to test if it draws me in. If I’m still unsure about whether to invest or not, I then open the book on a random page and read a couple of sentences. If the style gels with me, I know it’s a winner. One swipe of my phone later and my afternoon plans are made.
Given that Covid-19 has upended most norms of how we go about our lives, it seems a little naïve that I was waiting for the day I could roam free in a bookshop again. Understandably, my local independent bookshop is only taking book requests via Instagram, Facebook and the odd phone call. Unfortunately, there’s only so many times I can bear asking if they have a book when the likelihood they do is low and orders take a few weeks to arrive. Our DMs are a sad and guilt-inducing affair.
As a larger organisation, Waterstones is unsurprisingly re-opening across the country, and is beginning to upend the traditional methods of bookshops. One of the most interesting changes to a booklover is the way they are displaying books, showcasing covers and blurbs side by side! You no longer have to pick it up to consider it’s relative merits, merely match the cover to the blurb on the two corresponding displays.
Whilst there are digital alternatives to browsing books such as the “look inside” and “other customers looked at” features on Amazon, these have not yet developed to the point where they can entirely replicate the experience of browsing. I find I can’t underestimate the value of a fellow booklover’s opinion and recommendations. Either by tags stuck under the books, the carefully-constructed display tables, or simply asking someone who works there, I’ve often found something I never would have picked out online but that I absolutely loved.
In an interview with The Guardian, the chief executive of Waterstones stated that they expect consumer behaviour to change as they reopen and that people will not be “just coming to while away the hours but generally they are going to pick up books”. Whilst I understand the commercial desire for this (more sales equals more money), I fear that they will lose some of their charm, as bookshops make changes to encourage this natural shift in behaviour to stick.
The bookselling industry has evolved greatly over the last few years. Amazon and other online retailers deliver books to your house, or you can download an e-book in seconds. There are two main responses that most bookshops seem to take: competing on a price basis (Blackwell’s student price-match scheme is an example of this) or relying more upon the experience they give their customers to generate loyalty. In my opinion, browsing is what gives bookshops this key experience.
Personally, I like a classic brick-and-mortar store. I enjoy being amongst books; to be able to figure out whether it’s the book for me in seconds in a way that I often find I can’t through online reviews and summaries. However, in the wake of Covid-19, it remains to be seen whether bookshops will continue to encourage our love of browsing.