Saturday, June 25, 2011

Do we need to lose the Bookshop at Queen’s?

I gather that the Bookshop at Queen’s is to close. There will of course be much wailing and gnashing of teeth about the end of civilisation as we know it from the South Belfast chatterati who haven’t bought a book there in years. However, the manager has got it right in The Gown when he says:

I have to concede that this model, in terms of a bricks and mortar bookshop and concentrating on academic books, is no longer economically viable.

He goes on to say ‘younger people’ – by which I assume he mainly means students – use the internet to buy books, but more fundamentally don’t buy books at all because they are using the internet as an information source in its own right. Again I think he is largely correct, despite the efforts of many lecturers like myself who stress the unreliability of internet sources and try to get our student to actually read books and journal articles. There’s another reason students might not buy books, of course – fees and the cost of living in a society which no longer provides free third level education.

So is closure inevitable? I wonder whether options other than closure have been considered. I always understood that the bookshop was run by a Management Board which has a connection with Queen’s but that the bookshop is not owned by the university, as stated by The Gown. How can I put this tactfully. There may be a possibility that the Board (whose names I cannot find on the internet) does not contain many people with bookselling experience, or wider commercial knowledge, although of course I may be wrong.

The student market has gone, thus freeing up the bookshop to capitalise on its best known feature, the wide selection of books on Irish politics and history. Why not make this the bedrock of a different kind of bookshop, perhaps learning from No Alibis down the road?

The stock should be reduced to Irish history and politics (North and South), local history, Irish language (OK, Ulster Scots as well), tourist-related information, and a literature section based on local authors (in both local languages and in our local dialect), of whom we have a glorious selection. There may be scope for moving into specialist secondhand books to supplement the current range of new bargain books, and perhaps even a limited range of non-book items. There would then be space for an ‘events’ room or area, which should be used to continue the current tradition of book launches, plus other readings and talks organised independently or connected to the many festivals we have in Belfast - or to University departments and Institutes. There should be a greater focus on promoting online trade (see this example of the Brookline Booksmith). And of course eBooks should be available to purchase online and in the shop.

In these ways, the bookshop would provide a more specialist service to those with an interest in aspects of Irish history, politics and culture, with both a local and global market. Investment would be needed in development of online services and perhaps in recruiting some new staff with more expertise in this area as well as marketing and events management. Interestingly, the news item in The Bookseller says the shop is still profitable but expects not to be next year, so there may still be time to make changes.

Bookselling is going through hard times at the moment due to the economic climate and technological change. It’s certainly a lot tougher than when I worked in bookshops in the 1980s, or when Nick worked at the Bookshop at Queen’s for a short period ten years ago, after considerable bookselling experience in London. New business models need to be developed and it may be too late to do so in this particular case. Or it may be that what I’ve outlined has been costed and is unviable. But I wouldn’t like to see them give up without having explored every option.


nick said...

Like you, I wonder if they've explored every possible option for restructuring the business in ways that scrap the uncommercial aspects and expand the profitable aspects, as well as developing the potential of online sales of books and other items to an international market. The impression I get is that they're giving up far too easily because they're still thinking in terms of the traditional academic bookshop rather than an new internet-era business model.

It would be a great shame if Belfast loses yet another "proper" bookshop.

Jenny Muir said...

When we signed the petition to stop a takeover by Dillons in the mid-1990s, I now wonder if we did the right thing. Of course if the bookshop was now a branch of Waterstones it might have been even more vulnerable, but on the other hand there would have been more capital available for investment, and of course access to higher discounts.

IN order to survive, bookshops need to connect more closely with the wider cultural life of their environment (usually a city) in order to offer the face to face contact abd expertise that's not available online. And then find a way to disseminate it e.g. youtube extracts from bookshop events. And Twitter is essential nowadays.

Jenny Muir said...

PS They do have both Twitter and Facebook accounts although neither has been used recently

Rab said...

I think your suggestion for the future of the bookshop looks really interesting. Like Nick, I'd hate to see Belfast lose another bookshop. I do shop on-line, usually, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who appreciates and would spend money in a specialist bookshop like the one you describe.

Also, I'm interested in you comments about the book-buying habits (or not as the case may be) of students. I have to confess that I increasingly take a very firm line on this - digitisation of reading material means there is no excuse for not reading widely and appropriately. Therefore poorly researched assignments simply fail.

Tough on ignorance: tough on the causes of ignorance.

Jenny Muir said...

Thanks Rab - we do have to ask what does a bookshop offer today which can't be obtained online, and IMO the answer is face to face contact, reliable specialist advice (rather than Amazon reviews) and a connection with the wider cultural life of the area - and then connect up with a global online market. A case of 'glocalisation', if you will (a horrible but useful word).

I agree with you about students reading, but I'm always astonished at how little some students use the course material they are actually provided with. I've had occasion to mark down 'reading widely' when it only involves sources available on the internet at the expense of actually using the class sources as a basis for further research.

Anonymous said...

I am devastated by the forthcoming closure of the shop but I think your ideas for potential business models are excellent.

Jenny Muir said...

Thank you, Clare. I would be delighted if someone were to take up my suggestions, as I'm not in a position to do so - but I doubt it'll happen.