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.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Following your dreams in the modern world

The blogging hiatus has been due to being busy at work and also having been in the USA on a Boston College Irish Institute programme, of which more in the weeks to come. I’ve also been working on Labour in Northern Ireland’s submission to the Refounding Labour review, again to be discussed here in the near future. In the wider world, the Greek economy is collapsing and, at home, this year the Twelfth looks like it’s going to be a humdinger.

So what better subject to blog about than Lady Gaga. I watched the Paul O’Grady special last night in the interests of catching up with this global entertainment phenomenon.

The music is derivative – deliberately so in some cases, I gather from an interesting Rolling Stone interview (not available in full on line) – and her voice is weak compared with, say, Adele. But of course it’s not about the music. The staging of the performances are lavish and, I think, superb, although of course again sometimes derivative. The Factory it ain’t, despite an intriguing reference to Warhol’s studio during the interview (and does this photo remind you of anyone?).

However, the interview left me unsure about just how positive a message Gaga is giving to her Little Monsters about how they might live. Apparently in interviews she often mentions having been bullied at school, and she is well known for her advocacy of LBGT rights. Full marks for the message of being true to yourself and not ashamed of having been born that way.

But less so for the message of the inevitability of fulfilment. With reference to her own experiences, Gaga movingly stated that people need to hold on to their essence and that eventually they would be able to be live a life where they could be themselves, recognised and valued for who they really are.

Now that’s a positive message if it’s interpreted by young people as meaning they should behave with integrity in whatever situation they find themselves – unemployment, that boring or frustrating first job, after the promotion you don’t get, or in other difficult personal circumstances such as being jilted. Not so much if the assumption is that everyone who wants to be a pop star, footballer or other form of ‘celebrity’ is going to make it simply because that’s what they want and that’s where they think they ought to be in life. When Gaga was talking about being yourself, I didn’t get the impression she was talking about getting a steady job in order to pay the mortgage and support your family – but for many people, that’s what integrity comes down to in the end.

The hard truth is that some people never get the opportunity to do what they would really like to in life, due to lack of opportunity or ability, no matter how hard they try. That doesn’t stop them being true to themselves in their personal lives, of course. But a bit more realism about the options available would be nice.