Faced with the recession and competition from retail giants and online sellers, small bookshops have been disappearing fast from our high streets. But there’s one London gem that’s a textbook example of how to buck the trend.
Independent bookshops in the US and Europe were already having a tough time before the credit crunch began, with competition from the high street giants, supermarkets and Amazon. Since the recession set in, bookshops of all sorts have lost sales (Borders dropped 8.8 per cent in 2008). Yet one place believes it will emerge stronger than its larger competitors.
Daunt Books began in London’s Marylebone High Street in 1990, just before the last recession in Britain. Twenty years and four more branches later, its principles haven’t changed. “We have an industry geared up to shovel tat down people’s throats rather than sell them great books,” says owner James Daunt. “It’s in our interest [to sell good books]. If you read a good one you read it much quicker and you come back for another one.”
Books in the travel section – which accounts for 50 per cent of sales – are organised by country not by category. So you can find a guide book, a novel about the country you’re going to and a history all in one place.
Like its larger competitors, Daunt’s (as it’s known) felt the pinch earlier this year – sales were down in January and February. But by July they had climbed back to near last year’s level. James Daunt is convinced that having real expertise and responding to his customers rather than dictating what they should read puts him in a good position to ride the recession. “We were selling an awful lot of silly stuff,” he admits. “Hugely expensive £2,000 books on Muhammad Ali, for example. And all of that has stopped. Which is no bad thing.”
Quality not quantity
“We don’t have any relationships with publishers at all,” says James Daunt. “What we put in our windows we choose ourselves.” However much hype a book gets, Daunt waits to see the reviews. They also will happily put a book in their front window that’s been out for months, just because it’s good.
2. A sanctuary
The Marylebone High Street shop is the ultimate retreat. Its Edwardian wooden panelling and gallery give the place the feel of a library and glass roofs flood the place with natural light. There is no background music, and there are sofas and tables where customers are welcome to read for as long as they like.
3. Attention to detail
Space and light
The shelves are lined with dark green floral Liberty fabrics. Lighting is soft but plentiful (there are green glass lampshades – not striplights). Many books face outwards on the shelves and large round wooden tables of books at the front of the shop are spaced widely apart. Shelving is used to create small, cosy areas.
4. Children matter
The children’s book section is unusually good, stocked with old classics and beautiful hardbacks as well as the latest hits. And there are small wooden chairs to encourage kids to browse.
The unique concept at Daunt is that the heart of the shop is organised by country, not by category. There’s a section for almost every country in the world (some are lumped together into West Africa, Baltic etc). In each, you have guide books, maps, histories, biographies, novels and current affairs books.
There are no “bestseller” sections or “top 20” rankings for books or “three for the price of two” promotion stickers on book covers. The well-paid, knowledgeable staff are encouraged to tailor recommendations to the customer’s age group and taste.
“This is the best travel bookshop in the world. It’s a treat coming here – much better than trawling Amazon. The place has something like a church atmosphere. It helps you think.”
“I come here whenever I’m in London. It’s a wonderful resource. If you’re going away, you can get everything in one place. And they get things you order very quickly.”
How do you choose your books?
We have no relationship with publishers. We only buy a few books in advance and only order more if the reviews are good. This means that generally we will be selling better books than others.
You have five shops in London now – are they all the same?
We have opened new shops when our staff have been ready for a new challenge. Our shops vary in size and they have very different atmospheres. A large part of all of the shops is arranged by country. But each shop varies its stock according to the specific local demographic.
What about the internet?
We are planning to start web sales later this year. All our books will be arranged by country on the website and commented upon by us. Compared to Amazon, we hope to make it easier for people to find books about things they have a special interest in. The e-book avalanche is just starting and we want to catch that. But the physical bookshop will always have something to add.
1910 Back room of a Marylebone High Street shop that was built by its resident antiquarian bookseller, Francis Edwards. 1970s Property passes hands between several second-hand bookshops. 1989 James Daunt leaves investment banking career, rents premises and opens Daunt Books in 1990. 1995 New branch opens in Belsize Park. 2008 Fifth London branch opens in Chelsea. 2009 Online sales begin.