Bookstore wars are brewing...
and the weapons are coffee and comfy chairs. John Davies on the US threat galvanising British booksellers
Go into the big branch of Dillons on Gower Street in London, just round the corner from Birkbeck College, and you might still find, by a cash desk, free copies of "A Guide to Dillons Bookstores in London". Unfolded, the leaflet reveals a map with 18 bookshops marked, including six on-campus Dillons branches. Soon that leaflet will be out of date. Earlier this year, Dillons and Waterstones bookshops were merged to form a new entity - the book division of the HMV Media Group. As a result most existing Dillons will be, as the marketing people put it, "re-badged" as Waterstones. This will include the Gower Street flagship, a cherished academic resource, boasting "over five miles of books in 50 different departments".
"We will probably re-brand the on-campus Dillons shops over the summer, before the new academic year starts," says Waterstones marketing director Martin Lee. But for changing the name of the Gower Street store - "probably one of the most controversial decisions we've made" - no date has been fixed. The name Dillons will continue to be borne by 29 shops "in towns where both brands already co-exist", so why change the Gower Street store's name? The reason officially lies in market research, which reveals Waterstones to be "perceived as the more authoritative bookshop".
But in the background lies a threat from across the Atlantic, which is sharply concentrating the minds of British booksellers on how to keep their customers in the face of the Americans' very different approach to bookselling. The big United States bookstore chain Borders, which has acquired Books etc, will open huge, luxurious branches in Leeds, Glasgow and London's Oxford Street this summer. There have also been rumours that Barnes and Noble, also big in America (where it has a considerable presence on campus), is eyeing Britain. The face of academic bookshops is set for transformation as a bookstore war looms between traditional British stores and giant American chains, with their comfy armchairs and coffee bars and customer-friendly ways.
American booksellers' habits are already starting to take hold in Britain, even in campus shops. Last week, when it announced its takeover of Austicks academic and professional bookshop in Leeds, Blackwell's (56 on-campus shops) revealed that plans for the refurbished bookshop (serving Leeds and Leeds Metropolitan universities) would "incorporate a ground-floor coffee shop". This will be the second Blackwell's to serve refreshments: "We trialled it successfully with a book cafe at the University of Brighton," says marketing manager Clare Pirie. Coffee is on the menu, too, for Waterstone's: its Southampton campus branch, (after "re-badging" Waterstones will have 30 on-campus shops) due to reopen later this year, includes a coffee shop and a printing and binding service.
But most campus bookshops are still just bookshops. "There isn't usually the space for anything else," says David Preston, general manager of the Keele-based Students' Bookshops (19 locations).
Wholly owned by its university, the campus bookshop at Queen's, Belfast, is another that attracts passing trade with nothing but books. "I don't think there's any substitute for the stock you have," says manager Tim Smyth. He believes "one of the few advantages independent booksellers have is their idiosyncrasy, flexibility and knowledge of their customer base. "We have to offer something quirky you're not going to find somewhere else" - in his store's case, it is a massive Irish collection.
All of which may indicate that academic booksellers are increasing their efforts to serve their customers. "For too long students have been treated as second best," says Blackwell's Pirie. "Chains like Dillons and Waterstones have concentrated their money on their high street branches in the past, and have done campus bookshops as cheaply as they can. With universities becoming more aware of what they can ask for, maybe things are changing."