Serendipity will keep bookshops alive

With some bookshops set to reopen in a couple of weeks, it’s a good time to think about some of the lockdown actions that have kept shops afloat - and why they work on buyers.

At their best, bookshops are both scientific and magic. Certain elements are theorised extensively – look at the consideration that goes into store layout. It’s no coincidence that many shops have poetry and gardening sections abutting each other and a conveniently placed comfy chair on which to make decisions after we browse. In most, every inch of shelf-space is maximised so customers can find what we want – and what we didn’t know we wanted until we wandered round the store.

This second element is where we often find the magic – and it’s this that bookbuyers are missing since shops had to close their physical doors. While we can request specific books via phone, email or the shops’ websites, we lack the opportunity to browse their shelves and happen upon something new and wonderful and surprising.

In both libraries and bookshops, the holy grail of online discovery is not search and retrieval of items the seeker already knows, but serendipity – a word itself invented by incurable bibliophile Horace Walpole, based, he said, on a tale called The Three Princes of Serendip – “as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.”

Nearly fifty years ago, Philip M. Morse identified browsing as “a search, hopefully serendipitous.” Research continues into “information encountering” – the idea that we often enjoy discovering new ideas in a less direct way than typing search terms into a box, or asking a bookseller for a specific title. In particular, there are four approaches that we can see at work in some of the successful lockdown activities of many shops. Each contributes to a sensation of serendipity for the customer – the discovery of happy accidental knowledge.

1. Serendipity is something that can be triggered. Lori McCay-Peet and Elaine G. Toms talk about “trigger-rich environments” – places that allow people to “brush up against information and ideas they may not have otherwise encountered.”

2. Triggers can be highlighted. We might be open to new ideas, and even seeking them out, but it can help if someone shows us potential stimuli.

3. Encouraging people to think about the triggers can lead them to make connections from their known interests to things they may have dismissed as outside their scope.

4. In the academic language “enabling follow-up” leading to a “valuable outcome” translates in bookselling terms to getting the books and other merchandise to the customer. In other words, sales.

It’s obvious to see how, in the physical bookshop, the classic techniques of handselling tick each of these boxes, moving the buyer from passively encountering a new publication by showing us new things, chatting to us, and also having us speak as we form connections in our minds. It’s those connections that lead to desire for the new book, seeing it as a lucky find.

It’s luck based on the customer’s open mind and the bookseller’s knowledge of us. There’s no coincidence that bookshops quick to dive into trying out new things online in the last few weeks had confidence in knowing their regulars and what they would be missing. “Success” for most didn’t just come from tooling up online – learning to Zoom for events (without leaving themselves open to hacking). It came from the sense of community they had built up – sometimes quickly, and sometimes over a period of decades.

The Second Shelf was founded in 2018 and already has 26.5 thousand followers on Twitter and 18.8 thousand on Instagram. It’s not the numbers, but the quality of interaction that counts. Pulling together a new merchandise campaign to tide them over lockdown was possible by drawing on a suggestion a year ago, from a community as committed to discovering women writers as bookshop founder Allison Devers.

Some efforts are quieter but just as magical. Whether it’s been ensuring that they can provide signed copies of books, hosting or even just drawing our attention to publisher events, or sharing pictures of their much-missed stores, booksellers have adapted to create lockdown experiences for their customers. Extras abound. Each of these contains at least three of the elements that make for serendipity.

The toughest element to crack is the last – making the sale. Often online attendees of the virtual festivals have bemoaned the absence of a “signed copies table”, only for event organisers and others to suggest independent bookshops. But how have booksellers ensured theirs is the one to supply their customers?

Pan Macmillan’s Virtually Together festival is an online author tour of high street bookshops. In this case, the publisher is creating the trigger-rich environment, the bookshops are highlighting it, and then working with authors they know to form connections for customers. After these tweets from the Imagined Things Bookshop and Fiona Cummins, where would you choose to buy a signed copy of her new book?

Here we can see a major publisher sparking serendipity – and it’s working in two different ways. The serendipity I am feeling is finding out about a new-to-me bookshop in Harrogate – a place I should have been this week for a conference. It feels “meant” for me to buy a book from Imagined Things.

We can’t talk about signings without mentioning Goldsboro Books. I’ll never forget how they burst into Cecil Court back in 1999 with a completely fresh approach, centred on signed editions. It’s one that’s caught the Zeitgeist now – their post about their cancelled Romance in the Court Festival is a great example of using a simple online post to close some serendipitous sales for themselves, while sharing the outcome by also suggesting Hive.

Not all approaches to lockdown have been hi-tech – nor need they be. Boasting on its website “No robots since 1997,” Bookseller Crow on the Hill loves and is loved by Crystal Palace residents, yet managed to send this East Londoner the most serendipitous of the lockdown book boxes for which I signed up. No candles, no chocolates, no fancy wrapping. Just Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, a book anyone else would think I’d have read years ago. How did the bookseller know I hadn’t?

Magic. Serendipity. Skill.