I might just be on the scent of what will guarantee the future of the bookshop

The short-tailed baboon of Sumatra stands a better chance of survival than Hatchards


It was all go at my local Waterstones this week. Now there’s a sentence you don’t get to write often. It was all go because an author was in for a signing, and he’d brought his friend along. He was James Bowen, former vagrant, former druggie, sometime Tube-station busker and now bestselling author of A Street Cat Called Bob.

If the charmingly diffident Bowen weren’t enough of a draw, he’d brought the titular ginger tom with him. It sat on a table and, through shrewd green eyes, surveyed the long line of soft-hearted Londoners as they queued for a signature, a chat and a paw print. Beside the entrance doors a rare phenomenon could be seen: a second cat author, with a self-published memoir and another eponymous moggy, hitching a ride on the celebrity of James and Bob.

Is this what it takes to get people into bookshops now? To get them into bookshops and buy a flipping book, rather than peruse the paperbacks before going home and ordering one on Amazon? Is there a large enough production line of cute-pet books, smiling-TV-chef books and Miranda Hart autobiographies to guarantee the personal appearances and signings that are the lifeblood of modern bookshops?

Because that lifeblood is thinning fast. According to Real Business website, the number of British high-street bookshops has more than halved in the past seven years. In 2005 there were 4,000; last year 1,878. In a couple of years there’ll be only 1,000 left. Unimaginably, the bookshop will be going the way of the record shop and video store. When it comes to threatened extinction, the short-tailed, pink-eyed, vegetarian, gay albino baboon of Sumatra stands a better chance of survival than Daunt and Hatchards.

We know the problem. Sales of print books are falling, while sales of ebooks doubled last year. And, being unable to fight the Amazonian dragon (which sells both print and ebooks) the physical bookshop has to maximise other things: customer service, the know-all-ness of the staff, plus any stratagems it can invent to persuade customers to a) stick around and b) hit the tills and spend money.

Other countries have toyed with direct action. In Manhattan, fans of St Mark’s bookshop in Third Avenue started an internet petition to persuade Cooper Union – which owns the building that houses the bookshop – to lower its rent, just from sheer, well, cultural responsibility. You could imagine how well that went down.

The Bookseller brings news from Venice that the existence of four of La Serenissima’s most famous bookshops is now threatened – even the venerable Goldoni emporium can’t survive rent and rates increases flooding in like the River Po over St Mark’s Square. Incensed, 100 local authors have signed a manifesto demanding the city save its bookshops rather than turn all its retail space over to tourism. Other ideas include holding flash-mob events and blacking out bookshop windows to draw attention to the plight of the librerie.

In the midst of this hubbub of conscience-pricking and aggression, one idea stands out for its completely off-the-wall quality. It’s a solution to the bookshop problem that anyone can try, and its cost is minimal. In Belgium, according to Salon.com, researchers have found that bookshop customers spend more time browsing – and buying books at the end of their perusal – if their nostrils are given a whiff of chocolate. No kidding. In experiments, whiffs of cocoa solids were introduced into a bookstore and the reactions of customer monitored. Usually such people would look for a single title, pay for it and vamoose. But once they’d got the scent, they slowed down appreciably, looked at several titles and chatted with the staff.

Chocolate! Is that the answer? When all other arguments – that a bookshop is the aorta of a community; that if you don’t support your local bookseller by giving him, not Amazon, your money, he will surely close – have failed, we fall back on the seductions of atmosphere.

This suggests that readers are like house-buyers who feel well disposed towards a property because it smells of roasting coffee beans when they enter it. That can’t be right. These are readers of books, for heaven’s sake, clever, sensitive people. They would never be impressed or taken in by any psychological manipulation.

Would they? Suddenly I’m not so sure. For what is fiction except psychological manipulation – an author playing with a reader’s unslakable desire to be pleased, beguiled, transported. And if I look again at the Belgian researchers’ study, I see it reports that sales of food or drink books rose by 44 per cent when the smell of chocolate was in the air – and sales of romance novels rose by 22 per cent. Sales of history books or crime fiction, however, did better when the chocolate aroma was absent.

Oh God. You know what this means? It means that, armed with these findings, the bookselling world will now go crazy looking for appropriate smells for certain genres. A smell of tea and Hobnobs to go with classic murder mysteries? A pong of cordite, sweat and horse dung to accompany histories by Anthony Beevor? Bookshops, mark my words, will pamper customers like never before, because their shops offer something Amazon can never offer: atmosphere. For what does Amazon smell of? Going by the name alone, I’m getting single-breasted jungle warrior’s armpit.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Supply Chain Administrator

£8000 - £10800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Supply Chain Administrator is ...

Recruitment Genius: Client IT Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Client IT Account Manager is ...

Ashdown Group: Management Accountant / Analyst (CIMA finalist/newly qualified)

£32000 - £38000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant / F...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - .NET

£27000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of a mark...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Daily catch-up: the endless and beginningless election campaign goes up and down

John Rentoul
Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, with her boyfriend, fellow vlogger Alfie Deyes  

What the advertising world can learn from Zoella's gang

Danny Rogers
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor