A leaf out of Hollywood's book

When book superstores arrive in Britain small shops will find the competition tougher than ever. By Rob Brown
Click to follow
One of the joys of visiting the United States, for bookworms anyway, is getting lost for hours in the sprawling superstores that dominate bookselling. Leading chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders have giant, well-appointed stores in prime downtown locations, where couches and cafes keep browsers lingering longer.

Still, not all British bibliophiles will be moved to celebrate the imminent arrival of similar literary Aladdin's caves on these shores. For, as executives at Waterstone's work frantically towards the launch of the UK's first US-style book superstore in Glasgow, to be opened in late September by Norman Mailer, the American superstores are being blamed for a disturbing downturn in book sales.

Along with fresh filtered coffee and other civilised accoutrements, the superstores have brought a crude Hollywood-style approach to bookselling. Much prime shelf-space and marketing effort is targeted on a handful of major titles that are piled like bricks on large, strategically located octagonal tables. Those that don't "open big" by becoming instant blockbusters are swiftly returned to the publishers' warehouses.

Michael Lynton, who ran Disney's Hollywood Pictures before becoming chairman of Pearson plc's Penguin Group last year, summed up the situation when he told the Wall Street Journal: "You don't build books anymore. It's become the equivalent of blasting a movie out over 2,600 screens."

Peter Osnos, who left the big New York publisher Random House to set up a small independent imprint company, told the Journal: "If you only print 60,000 copies, they won't take you seriously."

But Waterstone's claims it will be taking publishers of all sizes more seriously than ever when it opens Britain's biggest bookstore - 150,000 titles in 28,000 square feet of retail space spread over five floors. "It has always been our policy to offer the widest possible range of titles, and the superstore gives us the chance to double or treble the number of books we carry," says Alan Giles, managing director of Waterstone's.

Small, independent bookstores, already reeling from the collapse of the Net Book Agreement, may find it even harder to compete against superstores. But Giles does not accept this. "Our crucial objective is to genuinely grow the book market," says Giles. "It is important to remember that the market for books isn't like that for food. It isn't a fixed market."

Others in the trade are less optimistic. Radio 4's Kaleidoscope recently commented that Brighton used to have four independent bookstores but is now down to one. Two were acquired by chains and the last closed recently, pinning a poster to its window blaming the collapse on the NBA.

If the Glasgow store lives up to expectations, Waterstone's will take the concept across Britain and Ireland. "We view this opening as an opportunity to reinvent what British bookselling is about for the rest of the Nineties and into the next century, in the same way that Tim Waterstone reinvented bookselling in Britain in the Eighties," says Giles.

Each of the five floors at the Glasgow store will have a different feel, from the basement cafe lounge to the student-friendly academic area at the top, kitted out with long library tables and reading lights. There will be an Internet access area and a brightly coloured, interactive children's department. A large central atrium and clear, uncluttered spaces on each floor will create light and space. Sofas and armchairs will encourage customers to browse a little longer.

"Shopping for books is quite different from other forms of shopping," says Giles. "It should be relaxed and unhurried, like going into a museum or a gallery."

Like the BBC in the Reithian era, Waterstone's aims to inform, educate and entertain with "meet the author" sessions, live music, exhibitions, debates and workshops. The Glasgow store will develop links with schools and arts groups throughout the west of Scotland. "Bookshops are becoming a local centre where people can get together," says Fiona McCallum, project manager for the store, which was designed after Waterstone's had sent six branch managers to study bookstores in the US and on the Continent. New York and Frankfurt proved the most inspiring.

The concept will be tried first in Glasgow because Alan Giles is persuaded that Clydeside is "underprovided in terms of bookstores". If Scotland's largest city's penchant for American movies and music is anything to go by, you can bet your bottom dollar that Glaswegians will love bookselling Hollywood-stylen