Books: BOOK WARS

Bookselling just got bigger with the arrival of the Borders store in Oxford Street. Diona Gregory asks should bookstores try to be music shops and newsagents too? And what are its rivals planning?
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Noses are a little out of joint at Waterstone's this week. They can no longer lay claim to the biggest book shop in the country (Waterstone's in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow) nor the liveliest (Waterstone's in Deansgate, Manchester) because yesterday the US bookselling chain, Borders Books & Music, threw open the doors of its first British branch.

The superstore at 203 Oxford Street, to the east of Oxford Circus in London, in the former Littlewoods store, is big. Really big. Four floors - 39,000 sq ft - of retail space boasting extraordinary stock levels: 150,000 book titles, 50,000 CDs and tapes, 5,000 videos and 2,000 newspapers and magazines, as well as a cafe and a Paperchase stationery department. Imagine Waterstone's crossed with a high street record store and a specialist newsagent. But this shop will not be a mongrel, a muddle. Borders Books and Music are the second largest bookselling chain in the world. Books are what they do well. They've refined and honed their superstore concept in 200 branches in the States. Last year they opened in Singapore. With plans in hand for their first Australian outpost in the upmarket shopping area of Toorak in Melbourne, it was inevitable that their gaze would turn towards the UK.

The Oxford Street store is the first of five superstores that Borders Books & Music are to open in Britain over the next nine months: in September 16,000 sq ft in Churchill Square, Brighton; in November 40,000 sq ft in Buchanan Street, Glasgow; in the spring 32,000 sq ft in Briggate, Leeds, close to Harvey Nichols, and a second London superstore (35,000 sq ft) will open in Charing Cross Road.

Borders Books & Music hopes to establish itself as a chain of "destination stores" where long opening hours and the sheer variety of books, magazines, videos and music under one roof stimulates primary demand. Will the American superstore concept work here? Sceptics such as Ron Beard, a sales director at Random House, believe that the company may not be as successful here as in the States "as they don't know our market". It would be surprising if they did know the British books market as intimately as a British bookseller such as Dillons, Waterstone's, Blackwells or James Thin. It would be even more surprising if it wasn't part of Borders' strategy to employ people who did.

Last October 1997, Borders acquired Books etc, a lively and respected chain of 17 London bookstores with outposts at Gatwick, Edinburgh and Stansted airports. Virtually unknown outside the M25, Books etc was started by Richard Joseph and his father Philip. Richard Joseph, now chairman and CEO of Borders UK, is an ebullient man who claims, with justification, that books and bookselling are in his blood. He was born in South Africa to an English father and a literary agent mother who ran Exclusive Books (the South African equivalent of Waterstone's), where Joseph began his bookselling career. Michael Joseph the publisher is his cousin.

Books etc might have been established as a metropolitan chain but Richard Joseph is a cosmopolitan retailer: "I've always regarded part of my job as looking at bookstores not just locally but internationally, and I've popped into Borders in many locations, many times. The same applies to my colleagues - and we all say `if there's one bookstore that reminds us of Books etc, it's Borders.' We picked up a similar empathy, a similar style, a similar approach to bookselling. While we haven't been the largest in the UK, we saw ourselves as being in the forefront in terms of marketing, the style of bookselling."

The Borders take-over seems to have paid dividends for Books etc. Staff have moved across to work in the Borders store for American managers, seconded here for a maximum of two years to transfer their superstore management skills and pass on the Borders philosophy. The take-over has also raised Books etc's national profile: a new shop in Manchester is planned.

So what is the Borders management philosophy? Waterstone's revolutionised bookselling in this country with their ardent belief in the importance of the right atmosphere in a store, and by employing staff who enjoy and contribute to that atmosphere. Martin Lee, its marketing director, reports that their customers see Waterstone's as an oasis, a haven. "They love the fact that the emphasis is on the books rather than on hard sell. People tend to say `I feel like it's my own library'." And Waterstone's commitment to books remains as strong as ever. They have just announced that they will be opening their own London superstore in 2000, close to Oxford Circus, with 40,000 sq ft and 165,000+ titles. It will have all the features now expected of a large bookshop including a cafe and a dedicated events area, but more important, says Martin Lee, is the company's "simple commitment to range. We think that we'll have more books than any other general bookshop. In terms of High Street bookselling, this will be the shop in the UK. We'll have more books than Borders a few doors down, partly because we've got more square footage and because we won't be doing the music." The store will sell videos, newspapers and magazines, "The approach is not to be a newsagent, but to provide the kind of range that's consistent with what book buyers want."

Richard Joseph agrees with Martin Lee on the value of a store's ambience, on a high level of customer service,: "It's very easy to sign a lease for a store, put up shelves, fill it with stock but it's actually about getting the right feel, getting the right people working in the place."

Borders' Santa Monica store (pictured right), doesn't look anything like a library. With a vibrant daily events programme - live music, writing workshops, discussion groups, poetry workshops, singalong music sessions and early evening readings for children - Borders sees itself not just as a retailer, but as being in the leisure business, competing with television, cinema and concerts. There are sofas, wide aisles, a cafe with a drinks licence: "In the US the average dwell-time in the stores is 45 minutes. We do it by creating an environment where people feel at home, comfortable, spending as long as they like reading, listening to music, meeting their friends ... The fact that they don't buy a book every time they go in there is beside the point; what we want is when people think book, they think `Ah, that's the place to go'," says Joseph. In Borders, you'll be able to listen to up to 800 CDs without asking an assistant to put them on for you. Each rack of CDs, has a headphone attached to it on which you can listen to 6 CDs from that bay - you can fast forward, rewind, or listen to the entire disc.

Joseph dislikes the term "book chain", seeing Books etc as "a series of individual bookstores which happen to be owned by one company. Where we've distinguished ourselves from our competitors, principally as a result of being London-based, is instead of seeing London as a homogeneous area, we've recognised that London is a series of little villages. We have shops which are two blocks apart but the profile of what we sell and the customer who comes in is very different."

This focus on the local market for each store is also a key aspect of Borders' marketing strategy. Each store has a full-time Community Relations Officer whose brief includes finding out what local groups want to see happening in the store, to enable Borders to provide a dynamic platform for community events. Richard Joseph claims that Borders' level of involvement in the community is more highly developed than anything they achieved with Books etc.

This is not purely altruistic behaviour. The stakes are high. The books market here is seething with activity. At the moment the UK spend per capita on books is greater than that in the States. The booksellers' share of the market since the collapse of the Net Book Agreement has grown as a consequence of an increase in book prices as well as, paradoxically, discounting, which increased the number of hardbacks sold at the expense of paperbacks.

Borders is renowned for its aggressive discounting in the States . Richard Joseph refused to be drawn on the scale of its plans for the UK. He is unfazed by the threat of discounted books sold through Internet booksellers, such as Amazon.com, poaching its market, or of Borders' own site, Borders.com, cannibalising its sales: "I still believe that people buy books because they want to read the book, not because it is cheap ... I still love the feel of paper, the smell of a book. [Using] a computer will never get anywhere near that."

His confidence is reflected by other retailers. Waterstone's Manchester is to increase its stock from 114,000 to 180,000 titles. Blackwell's is also expanding its Manchester store, and have bought out Austick's in Leeds. Waterstone's and Dillons in Brighton, Birmingham, Leeds and Middlesborough are to be redeveloped and enlarged. Another nine new Waterstone's or Dillons stores are planned. Ottakar's opened 15 stores last year and are planning more. The industry considers that it is only a matter of time until the other US book superstore chain, Barnes and Noble, arrives. Who ever said reading had fallen out of fashion?

! Borders Books & Music is open 8am -11pm Mon-Sat, 12-6pm on Sun

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