Arts: Comfort and coffee in book megastores

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The Independent Online
An American bookshop chain is planning to bring its cosy mix of sofas, story-telling and coffee shops to Britain. Louise Jury reports on the browsing revolution that is transforming book buying.

American booksellers Borders will open a shop of 39,000sq ft with 150,000 titles in Oxford Street, central London, this summer to offer Britons the chance to choose their books in comfort.

The move, to be followed by a store in Leeds by the autumn, will confirm a trend that has made the coffee shop an integral part of the book-buying process in shops selling perhaps four times the number of titles of traditional rivals.

The superstore which Waterstone's opened in Glasgow last year incorporated a coffee shop and comfortable chairs to encourage readers to take their time over their purchases.

Books etc, the British chain bought by Borders for pounds 40m a couple of months ago, already offers the option of a cup of coffee in several of its 22 shops.

A spokeswoman for Books etc and Borders said it was all about "lifestyle bookselling" - making the shop into a community base with more in it to interest the customer. The Borders chain also sells music and videos alongside paperbacks.

"In the past, people weren't encouraged to browse and read the books. But people want to take their time and make sure they have got the right book," the spokeswoman said.

At the 180 Borders shops in the United States, regular customers spend hours thumbing through the books without so much as a raised eyebrow from the staff. Special events include story-telling sessions for children and even Saturday evening pyjama parties for youngsters. It is still to be decided which of the US features will be transported into the British stores, which will operate alongside the Books etc chain under the Borders name.

A spokeswoman for Waterstone's said the reaction to the Glasgow store, which holds 150,000 titles, had been "fantastic". It had "amply exceeded" its sales targets and they were now looking for more superstore sites.

But Waterstone's had also recently opened its smallest shop - a 1,500sq ft site in the City of London. "There is not just an obsession with size," the spokeswoman said. "We want to listen to the audience and cater to it. In the City, they want to be in and out quickly."

Tim Rix, chairman of the National Book Committee, which brings together publishers, retailers and authors, said superstores were welcome if they encouraged more customers. "But the fear is that it might lead to a price war, which would eventually lead to the demise of the small independent bookseller, leaving smaller towns bereft."

But Brian Perman, director of the Book Trust which encourages reading, welcomed anything which encouraged people to buy more books.

"The revolution in book-selling has been the recognition that buying books is a pleasure pursuit like going to the cinema and requires bookshops to open when people are not working and where the ambience is really important," he said.