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.