27.06.11 | Peter Cox
Half the adults in the wasteland that used to be the great American city of Detroit now cannot read. We're not talking about their failure to perceive the finer nuances of Jonathan Franzen's latest flight of fancy. No. They can't read a bus sign, a pill bottle, or a McDonald's menu.
If that doesn't scare you, nothing will. With our libraries falling at a rate not seen since Caesar sacked Alexandria, and our public wealth being nasally ingurgitated by sociopathic bankers, the most we can expect on this issue from our rulers and masters are homilies without substance and platitudes without resources. And things will get worse.
Today, there is an air of urgency in the bookselling business that I've never sensed before. It's not just about the money; it's about fighting for our society and culture. We can all sense the darkness at the edge of town, I think. Getting people into bookshops is today a moral issue. But—how?
All retailers study the science of footfall. Independents are disadvantaged in this respect, with less in the way of resources compared to their larger competitors. Even so, some creative thinking can go a long way: challenging times call for exceptional actions. Here are five of the best, least expensive, ways to boost bookshop traffic.
1. Get into the street. Scientologists do it, chuggers do it, Starbucks do it—we should, too. Get right into your customers' faces, every daylight hour. Take a survey, give a bookmark, read a poem, offer a trade-in—any excuse to talk to passers-by. It's a numbers game: the more you pitch, the more you'll profit.
2. Develop atmosphere. Many bookshops feel sepulchral. Chill the vibe (ambient, not Four Seasons), sex up the decor, chiaroscuro the lighting (yes, the customer still has to read—but this isn't Sainsbury's is it?). Entering a bookshop must be an adventure, a moment of escapism. Create some magic!
3. Build loyalty. There are few urban businesses so cut-throat as coffee shops, and they've long understood the power of loyalty schemes. Try collaborating with other local shops: punters must get their card stamped by six different retailers to be entered into this month's prize draw for a hamper.
4. Get a patron. Bookshops aren't merely businesses, they are local cultural institutions. As such, they need patrons. Your patron should have media clout, a great social network, be prepared to MC events and proudly speak out on your behalf. Better yet, get two.
5. Free is the most powerful word in marketing. Every successful business on the net was built on it. Free Fridays (second-hand books taken as trade-ins) . . . free instore classes . . . free storytelling . . . this is one F-word you can't overuse.
We can win this battle—as indeed we must, if we're to save Western culture before it is closing time.