Lose yourself in a good bookshop

<p>John Ryan</p><p>On the face of it, designing and fitting out a bookshop would seem a relatively straightforward matter. Get some halfway-decent bookshelves, preferably library style, make sure you have the right books in stock and then open the doors. Time-honoured retail tradition dictates that you put your bestsellers at the front of the store, where they can be found easily. After that it's probably a matter of what fits that will determine the final store layout. </p><p>If this sounds a little ad hoc as a way of running a business, it's probably the reality for a fair proportion of independent book retailers. Even some of the larger chains are not immune to the siren call of the library-style store environment, where you just happen to pay rather than borrow. It is perhaps also a response to the mindset of those visiting a bookshop. </p><p>Points of difference</p><p>David Roberts, design director at design consultancy Fitch, comments: "We worked on Eason in Ireland and one of the main things was that this is a retailer with such an eclectic mix that there was a real sense of exploration. The ability to lose yourself was what we wanted to keep." He explains that the sense of happening upon what you want is part of the bookshop experience. </p><p>This is very much at odds with accepted high street design norms. At the other end of the spectrum, Apple's flagship store on Regent Street, opened last November, stands as an example of almost everything that book retailers do not do. It is an example of the "white box" tendency that has been a fashion instore design for almost a decade. Characterised by impersonal, minimalist interiors, these are stores in which received wisdom says that the product is allowed to speak for itself. For such hi-tech products as Apple computers it seems an almost perfect marriage of form and function. </p><p>The problem is that the white box route is less appropriate for other retailers, including booksellers--but people have still been tempted to have a crack at it. The results at best have been variable, allowing store designers to bandy around such phrases as "iconic", "brand identity" and "interior landscaping". Nothing wrong with any of these apart from the context in which they have been used--to make retailers buy something that might not have been right for their business.</p><p>It is fair to say that the white box fascism that had parts of the high street bookselling sector in thrall never really played a major part in independent bookshops. The reason is simple: design carries with it a hefty price tag and the economics of running a small bookshop have rarely permitted this kind of approach. Which might lead you to suppose that they start at a slight disadvantage.</p><p>A bit like Blue Peter </p><p>In fact, from a store interior perspective, it is one of the things that frequently makes them more interesting than their high street counterparts. Wordsworth Books, an independently owned bookshop in a very secondary location in Camberwell, south London, is a case in point. Starting from the windows, it is immediately apparent that this is not a store on which huge amounts of cash have been lavished. That said, the windows are an important element of the store and carry a strongly promotional feel. </p><p>Store manager Eugene Wolstenholme says: "We have quite a lot of window space. Some of our staff paint children's characters on the windows--The Cat in the Hat, that kind of thing. It's a bit like "Blue Peter" sometimes. At Christmas some of our staff bought a load of chicken wire and built the Himalayas to support the launch of the Michael Palin book." </p><p>Venture inside however and this is a highly organised operation where you can find your way to the required department with little difficulty. The general ambiance, as in many independents, is makeshift. Wolstenholme says: "We mainly use bookshelves, which I believe were bought second-hand. Any dump bins that come our way we make use of too." There is also a fair amount of coloured cardboard and handmade signage and the till point is bang in the middle of the store. This has the advantage of allowing shoppers to know where to pay for a book without looking too hard as well as giving cash-taking staff a clear view of all instore areas. </p><p>Camberwell's carrot</p><p>In terms of store layout, much attention has been paid to the nature of Camberwell's shoppers. Wolstenholme calls the store a "community bookshop" saying: "Of course we put new titles at the front of the shop. We also have bestsellers at the front too. Some of them are local bestsellers--for instance we have a large black population here, so we make sure we have black bestsellers." </p><p>Bearing in mind Roberts' notion of being able to lose yourself in a bookshop, there are a number of seating areas around the store, with a small table provided for children looking to relax while they read about Dr Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham. Wolstenholme says that, while major makeovers have never played a large part in the way the store looks, "It's a process of constant revision."</p><p>This might seem like a case of making it up as you go along and to an extent it is--albeit governed broadly by experience. Wordsworth is a store that is closely tuned to the needs and requirements of its target customers. A good local bookshop may not spend as much as a high street chain on its interior, but through its specialised knowledge, its effect on shoppers can be just as powerful. </p><p>For those whose business it is to create interiors for high street chains, the challenge is to design a store fit-out that will prove efficient as a cash-generating machine, allow shoppers to "lose" themselves, and respond to a specific location. In practice this combination of apparently conflicting factors meant that during the 1990s many high street booksellers retreated into the more basic kind of white box retailing. </p><p>This meant neutral walls, tasteful bookshelves, unobtrusive but informative signage and walkways to spin shoppers around a store, whether they liked it or not. For retailers, it also meant the ability to roll out a format at speed and with relatively little fuss.</p><p>The arrival of Borders from the US altered things substantially and for a while it looked as if every bookshop would have to have a Starbucks caf&eacute; serving skinny lattes and muffins. There remained, however, a large slice of the book-buying population that regarded bookshops as repositories of knowledge: places where you just went for books rather than a leisure experience as well. </p><p>In design terms this took Waterstone's down the book-of-the-month route and shelf-talkers with staff recommendations about the books on offer. This continues. Walk into a branch of Waterstone's today and the hand-written labels hark back to the simpler ethos offered by Wolstenholme at Wordsworth. </p><p>All is not what it might appear however. Richard Stayte, design director at consultancy Conran Design Group, responsible for many of the retailer's instore promotions, says: "Two years ago the books of the month might well have been chosen by the staff. Now it's more likely that they have been seen on "Richard&amp;Judy". They have to be pretty basic about things. It's tough out there."</p><p>This can mean providing obvious way-finding techniques, using a store's architecture to help shoppers find their way around. Although not as extreme as the mantra provided by Tony Vasishta, property services director at Boots, who says: "Get in. Get it. Get out.", something similar is apparent in the Borders on Oxford Street. Make your way from the front to the back of this store and each successive pillar has details of the contents of the floors above. The information is organised sequentially: the first pillar relates the first floor offer, the second, the second and so on. </p><p>This is where the essential difference between store design in an independent and in a high street chain is at its clearest. There are very few independents trading from multiple floors and, compared to high street operators, they tend to have modest footprints. One of the most basic requirements of any store design is that it allows you to grasp the offer quickly and easily. This is straightforward if the shop is small. </p><p>Take the idea to a large store however and "losing yourself" is more perception than reality, according to Roberts. He says: "You've got to remember that this is a bookshop and you've still got to keep the richness and depth."</p><p>Meg Seymour, marketing director at Borders, says that as part of the redesign of the Oxford Street flagship, now expanded to a number of stores nationally, higher fixturing has been incorporated. This allows shoppers to browse at leisure without feeling exposed. The notion of way-finding in stores of this size is to the fore and the Borders customer is probably as much concerned with their leisure as book shopping--books are only one facet of the total offer. </p><p>So overall it would seem there are at least three different kinds of bookstore interior in the marketplace at present. Independents are a law unto themselves, making use of what they can get but generally trading from a single floor where shoppers gain access to staff with specialist knowledge. Then there are the chains that set out stores on the basis of being booksellers and nothing else, and finally there is the Borders model working to improve dwell times through the injection of leisure. Seymour says that elements of the current Borders store interior, created by Platform Design, are being taken back to the parent company in the US, proving its worth for a specific customer type. </p><p>We are therefore at something of a crossroads where bookshop design is concerned, with no model dominating another. Whether we will all ultimately become leisure book shoppers or the bookshop, pure and simple, will prove resurgent, remains to be seen. </p><p>John Ryan is stores editor at Retail Week and a former editor of Retail Interiors. He has also worked for leading retail design consultancy 20:20.</p>