In the early noughties, The Bookseller ran an occasional series on “real booksellers”. Written by our former retail correspondent Richard Lewis, the idea was to seek out “the unsung heroes of bookselling”, as he put it. As part of the brief he met Odile Hellier, French founder of the Paris-based English-language bookshop Village Voice; Seán Wyse Jackson of Chelsea’s John Sandoe Books; and Brigitte Bunnell, a 23-year veteran of Hatchards.

I was reminded of this series when I met Benjamin Trisk, who part-owns and is chief executive of South Africa’s main bookshop chain, Exclusive Books. When he returned to the business last year after a 30-year hiatus from bookselling, Trisk told his staff: “This is more than just a transaction for me. It is a personal journey . . .” I don’t know if Trisk would have suited Lewis’ definition of a real bookseller, but he feels close enough.

Exclusive’s corporate history is not too different to that of Waterstones, Barnes & Noble or Borders. Around 2007/08 the wheels fell off for the chains, due to a loss of confidence caused by the threat of Amazon, discounting supermarkets and the e-book, which combined to take a signficant amount of customer spend away from the big bookshops. For range there was the internet; for convenience the e-book; and for price the supermarkets. How could real booksellers compete?

Deeper conversation

Trisk is not in the business of making excuses. “If you are a bad retailer you will go insolvent,” he told me. He believes retail needs to be treated as theatre, and points to bookshops that run hundreds of events each year as well as those that provide the backdrop to a deeper conversation—whether through coffee or, as Trisk plans, tapas. The vision is bold and it needs to be. Booksellers may be getting their mojos back, but the reality of the marketplace remains stubbornly fixed. Amazon will not become less competitive, the digital

Pandora’s Box has been opened and the e-book has leapt forth.

But range booksellers (when combined with astute curation) look to be more change-hardy than others. In another piece, we note that supermarkets’ book sales are losing ground to digital, precisely because their focus has been in areas where online and the e-book have made their biggest dent: commercial titles, discounted frontlist and branded books. The larger battle for “real” booksellers is continuing to attract “real” book-buyers into their stores, and then inspiring them to buy. This is as true in South Africa—where there are said to be one million book-buyers—as it is in the UK, or the US.

Not all booksellers will survive this — Village Voice closed in 2012, after 30 years. But like Trisk, I too believe this is a mission too vital to fail.