Conversational retailing

After a dramatic scene in “Godzilla”, Jean Reno breaks the silence by saying: “I could do with a coffee.” This is how many of us in the “bookland” must feel after 2012. Korky the Cat and Maeve Binchy consigned to the ether? Flogging flogging? E-books approaching 40%? Even I have got rid of my encyclopaedia (but that’s because my wife knows everything). And what of the future?

“I’m sorry, that’s impossible,” said a customer recently, when told that a follow-on volume by his favourite conspiracist would be published in January 2013: “The first book said the world would end before then.” The one thing futurologists of all hues are not good at is, well, surviving the future. Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” was wrong too: Kindle-buyers are book-lovers, not techies. In 2010, Michael Stackpole wrote a Huffington Post article headlined “Publishing will crash in November 2012”. Alvin Toffler, the Malcolm Gladwell of his age, sold eight million books with titles like Futureshock, but is now unread. Gladwell and Black Swan author Taleb are already being replaced on the futurology shelves by new pundits. Science fiction, with its unbounded imagination, seems to do a better job at predicting the future than non-fiction. The magical status of the book in Fahrenheit 451 and in the film “Equilibrium” convinces. And I like Stephen Fry’s observation about bookshops: “When the lift was invented, people did not stop using the stairs.” It is said we follow US trends: membership of the American Booksellers Association has increased three years in a row, after decades of decline.

All of retail is morphing, but in a satisfying way. I was irritated at the outrage of a customer who asked where Blockbuster had gone. When I explained that it had been demolished she sneered: “I can’t believe it: a university town with no Blockbuster!” Like many chains that have crashed in 2012, Blockbuster was not exactly kick-ass.

We need to revert to souk-style conversational retailing, after the blip of the Victorian age when mechanical servility was king, and we need product knowledge. I have bought my music online ever since I asked for Beethoven in HMV. I was asked to spell it, then given a DVD about a dog.

“Contextual software” is all the rage, suggesting hotels and maps as you book a flight, for instance, or advertising based on your emails. But booksellers have been second guessing their customers, in a nice way, for centuries, and doing so will be their future.
A 20-something girl came in to thank one of my booksellers who had said that Brighton Rock should really be read on the train to Brighton, all in one go. She had done just that. Similarly, the backpacking, gap-year Norwegian who came in for a book to suit the epic nomadism of his journey bought Moby Dick because of a “bespoke”, “contextualised” exchange (we got on). In a similar e-proof moment, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway saw “Cymbeline” open in Hatchards’ window at the lines: “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, nor the furious winter’s rages, Thou thy worldly task hast done.”

Three-dimensional bookselling with heart and soul can only flourish: "84 Charing Cross Road" is now an old film about a long-gone bookshop but the professional dedication of Anthony Hopkins’ Yeats-quoting bookseller is probably the future of this strange vocation. The public have wised up to being manipulated by inauthentic retailers. They want to be served by real people with expertise. Otherwise, why not shop at home, in bed, on the laptop, or in Poundland’s excellent book aisle?