Shopping: Crossing the literary borders

Are the new generation of bookshop megastores worth all the hype? Charlotte Packer reads between the lines

Not content to rest on their laurels as providers of the nation's favourite leisure activity, retailers are forever searching for new and exciting ways to keep us shopping. Canny store managers saw that by offering their customers rest, relaxation and decent food they'd both keep them on the job and also keep them from straying into rival stores.

Bookshops were among the first to adopt American-style cafes and cappuccino bars which not only added to their ambience but also swelled their coffers. But these days competition is fierce: not only does every other book shop come with a cafe attached, but they're fighting a price war too. Good coffee alone is no longer enough.

Borders Books & Music, a vast four-storey bookshop on London's Oxford Street, is a case in point. In addition to the books (150,000 different titles) there is, of course, a cafe, and there are CDs and tapes (around 50,000 in stock), and videos (choose from over 5,000); naturally there are magazines and newspapers (2,000 different titles) and stationery (a Paperchase concession) -- nothing new in that lot, apart from the quantities. Where it really differs from its fellow book sellers is in entertainment. Most bookshops have the odd signing or launch event, but at Borders there is a daily happening of some form or another. On Fridays it's jazz, and on Saturday mornings kids' story telling, and this Saturday, if you hurry, you'll catch Stephen King making his first public appearance (signing books, not scaring children), in the UK for 25 years. This commitment to vast stocks, opening hours of 8am-11pm and the variety of in-store activities sounds promising.

And, when you walk into the cathedral-like space which is the store's ground floor, you can't help but be impressed. But somehow the rest of the experience fails to live up to the promise of the PR puff, neither does all that space, light and height. Once you step off the escalator on the second floor it all feels pretty soulless and more like being stuck in a modern university library doing late-night cramming, or a bleak airport terminal: the ceiling is low, the carpet jazzy, and the lighting too harsh.

I was hoping for something more intimate and a little less corporate. But really Borders is just another bookshop; it's only the sales pitch which marks it out from its competitors. The pre-launch hype suggested that this would be a truly unique shopping experience, much was made of its American roots, and its fun and relaxed atmosphere, people would use Borders for more than books and music, they would choose to meet up for a drink and a chat too. But personally I'd rather meet up with someone at an airport departure lounge (with the promise of an exotic beach only hours away), than a place that simply feels like one.

There is nothing new at Borders Books & Music, bar the scale, and ultimately scale is not in its favour. Bookshops are at their best when they are intimate, when staff have the time, knowledge and inclination to help individual customers. And nowhere is this better illustrated than on Bleinheim Crescent in west London, where three of the UK's best specialist book shops have chosen to open.

Although to compare a specialist out-let's stock with that of a monster- size superstore like Borders would be unfair, a comparison of the shopping experience (on which the latter is trading hard), is quite legitimate. And the west London triumvirate come out the clear winners. Okay, so it may not be so convenient to trek out to Ladbroke Grove, and perhaps you only want the latest blockbuster, but that said, shopping and browsing in these shops is real pleasure.

The Travel Book Shop was the first to arrive, back in 1979, followed four years later by Books for Cooks; and finally in 1996 Garden Books. All three are cosy, and slightly cramped and each is very much a labour of love for its owners. In addition to these charms, all offer unrivalled selections of titles within their specialisation and most important of all, they run world wide mail order services.

In Books for Cooks there is a large squashy sofa for browsers to sink into, and an open-plan kitchen at the back where recipe books are put through their paces -- this spawned a restaurant and many customers, overcome by the delicious aromas, stay for lunch or tea. At The Travel Book Shop the floor is covered with worn kilims; and at Garden Books you will find pot plants and cups of herbal tea. In each case you feel that perhaps you have wandered into a personal library in someone's house, which in some ways you have because as well as current publications all three shops stock a good second hand selection of well-thumbed out of print titles.

In addition to the ambience, the main appeal of the trio of shops on Blenheim Crescent is the knowledge and enthusiasm of the staff. At The Travel Book Shop, which not only holds all the current guides the staff know exactly which are the best and most up to date. If you are heading off on a foreign adventure then you can do no better than start your journey here.

"If someone came in saying they were planning to go to India, and they hadn't been before," says manager, Sean Swallow "I'd try to persuade them to read VS Naipal's 'India: A Million Mutinies Now', in addition to the standard guides. If it was Japan I'd suggest The Lonely Planet Guide because it's the most up to date, and 'The Silent Cry' by Kenzaburo Oe. We have lots of travel-related fiction which, while probably there in a larger book shop, won't be in the travel section so you wouldn't necessarily notice it."

Although used by professional cooks and cookery writers, there is no snobbery at Books For Cooks, and you can expect to hear the truth about the latest culinary block-busters whether it's Delia or The River Cafe. If you simply need advice on boiling an egg, they'll locate the most suitable title (How to Boil an Egg by Jan Arkless); and just as they can be relied upon to have the most obscure cookery titles such as Home Smoking & Curing by Keith Erlandson, they will also have all the kitchen classics.

Over at Garden Books, owner Valerie Scriven has taken the definition of gardens and gardening to the limits, and books are arranged in sections as diverse as water gardening, literature inspired by nature, plants for problem places, garden history, bonsai and topiary, perfume and the history of perfume making, and there is even a business title 'Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds' by Charles Mackay, which is the only publication currently in print that covers Tulipmania. Customers include jewellery designers looking for inspiration from botanical illustrations and architects drawn by the impressive section devoted to public spaces and environmental design. Scientists, professional garden designers and keen enthusiasts also beat a path to Valerie's door. And there are the usual book signings and launches (Stephen Woodham's book Flower Power in mid-September), but better still there are exotic garden tours run by Valerie's tour company, East of Suez, which organises visits to Mughal gardens in India and natural history tours in Vietnam. So, if you must have a lifestyle experience with your hunt for reading matter, make the effort and head west or, if you're not based in London give them a call.

Borders Books & Music, 203 Oxford Street London W1(0171 292 1600) The next store opens in Brighton on 4th September.

The Travel Book Shop, 13-15 Blenheim Crescent, London W11 2EE (0171 229 5260) www.thetravelbookshop.co.uk; Books For Cooks, 4 Blenheim Crescent, London W11 (0171 2211992) e-mail: info@booksforcooks.com; Garden Books, 11 Blenheim Crescent, London W11 2EE (0171 792 0777)

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