A bookshop is more than its discounts; Arifa Akbar, week in books

 

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If buildings had souls or bore the imprint of everyone who had ever inhabited them, the new home for Foyles would be bursting with spectral rebels, creatives and a few anarchists, too.

Having moved two doors down from its old site on Charing Cross Road in central London, the new flagship store is where the old Central Saint Martins art school used to be. There is an atrium where the loos for the college stood and a visual arts section where the reception must have been. The ground-floor stage (where The Sex Pistols staged

a gig, and where Pulp played in 2011) is now the children’s corner. Doubtless, the various other new bits – the art gallery, the 200-seater auditorium for author events – may once have been the studio space

of then-arts students Mark Titchner, Goshka Macuga, Alexander McQueen, et al.

The arty new look hasn’t just added a few bells and whistles, but seems to be doing something more creative, hybrid and “survivalist” in Foyles’ aim to keep going in the battle against – if not digitisation – then perhaps the Amazon-isation, of books. Opening to the public yesterday, the new store, I would says, is the independent bookshop’s equivalent to Birmingham’s super-library – not quite a library/bookshop as we know it, more of a multi-platform “hub”, however irritating the modern-day jargon may be. It will provide WiFi with a gizmo that gives you directions to the department you want to find; it has a space for live performances; it will organise literary tours across the country (the Brontë tour, the Roald Dahl tour) and the world (the Jaipur Literature Festival tour) led by authors such as Marcel Theroux; and it will create a literary salon-type atmosphere for author events, with drinks and canapés to accompany readings. Oh, and it will also have 200,000 physical books on site.

All commendable, but the most radical difference between Foyles and many other booksellers is the lack of bargain-basement prices, discounts and two-for-one offers. Sam Husain, its CEO, is clear on why Foyles has remained unmoved by Amazon prices. “The value is not just in the books alone; the value is in the theatre of the experience [of the bookshop].” He talks of bookselling as curation, as performance, as added value to the acquisition of that £7.99 paperback that everyone is talking about. What Foyles has found in its market research is a contradictory-seeming fact: that when people walk into a bookshop, they want to be able to find what they’ve come for straight away, but they also want to get lost and browse and probably end up buying three other books they hadn’t reckoned on reading. So, efficiency – but the kind that has room for discovery and serendipity, too.

Yes, there is something contrived about its olde-worlde attempt to give the same “warren-like” feel to the new shop as the old, when it is all so big and brand-spankingly new. Yet Foyles is making a heroic attempt to put curation back in to the heart of bookselling – inviting authors such as PD James and Sarah Waters to pick their favourite books to have on front-of-store tables, for example. It is commendable, too, that the store wants to emphasise the “beauty” of the book as a physical item, as with the art books in the key space by the door. But the best, best bit in all of this is Foyles’ defiance of discount. Books are precious objects that are sometimes – quite often – worth much more than the price of a cup of tea.

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