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A Bookseller Who Bridges Print and Digital, Day and Night, This World and the Next

Watkin’s Books — the world’s most famous mind-body-spirit bookstore — nearly went under in 2010. A 21st-century business strategy and an American with vision saved it from extinction.

By Roger Tagholm

LONDON: You wouldn’t expect the owner of London’s –- if not the world’s -– most famous mind-body-spirit bookshop, Watkins, in Cecil Court, a Victorian walkway off Charing Cross Road, to be conventional, and Etan Ilfeld doesn’t disappoint. For a start, this 33-year-old entrepreneur is nocturnal. This isn’t a glib description; it’s true. Despite living in the UK, he still keeps to his native US time, going to bed around 4:00 or 4:30 a.m. and beginning his working day in the afternoon.

He is also a semi-professional chess-player (how many of those are there in the books business?), a film-maker and an artist. More importantly, he is the man who saved Watkins Bookshop from closure a year ago and who is now firmly committed to taking it into the world of digital while still maintaining its bricks and mortar presence.

“This place is the core,” he says, gesturing to the shelves where you will find everyone from controversial figures like Aleister Crowley to highly respected modern spiritual writers like Ken Wilber. “Anything you find in our online space is a derivation of the energy you see here.”

“I want to make the physical store the flagship for the virtual presence.”

But if that sounds too touchy-feely, Ilfeld is a realist about the challenge independents face and the strategies required to survive. The shop has just launched an app for the iPhone and iPad, with a plan for browsers to click on icons and download e-books. It has also re-launched the Watkins Review as a proper, paid-for magazine, with features that could appeal to the mainstream media. The magazine is offered free with purchases over £25 and its recent “Spiritual 100″ list received some 30,000 hits online. (In case you were wondering, author Eckhart Tolle came out top.)

“We’re being challenged on two fronts –- by Amazon and by e-books,” says Ilfeld, who studied math and physics at Stanford and took a Masters in film studies at the University of Southern California in LA. “Finding ways to cope with that is what it is all about. We have a very good website where we’re quite competitive on price, and we offer a lot of titles that aren’t easily available from Amazon. I don’t think the future is necessarily digital or paper. I don’t think one has to take a stand. I’m open-minded –- an artist is someone who can take two opposing views at the same time [this is said with a smile]. I have a love for physical stores, but I’m advocating a virtual space for Watkins, too -– one will help the other.”

Founded in 1893 and with early customers that included W.B. Yeats, who was interested in Tarot, the shop came close to extinction in February 2010, even closing for two weeks. It was saved from administration at the last minute by Ilfeld, who had been running a neighboring art gallery since 2007 and was shocked to see the “Closed” signs go up. “I could not believe that something that had been around for more than a century could disappear. Others wanted to make it online only. I want to make the physical store the flagship for the virtual presence.”

To that end, Ilfeld has used money that he made in the film world to develop the apps and is confident that digital can help paper, and vice versa. “I love paper, I love books -– the tactility of them. I think in the long term we will look at bundling options –- you get the print book together with the e-book. I think that by 2020 there will be a more immersive, interactive experience with e-books, but I plan to do whatever is in my power to make sure that this shop remains in business for the rest of this century.”

To which Yeats would surely raise a glass, or two.

DISCUSS: Can Niche Bookstores Survive in the Age of Digital?

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2 Comments

  1. Posted May 9, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Wow. I’m impressed. Don’t even know where to start–except maybe Travelocity.

  2. Posted May 10, 2011 at 2:20 am | Permalink

    Yep, I agree with Gabrielle. That’s an inspiring tale, best of luck for the print/digital partnership rather than divide.

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