By Roger Tagholm
Young children are dismissing their grandparents’ Kindles as “old-fashioned” and demanding real, paper books, according to Foyles’ Chairman, Christopher Foyle, who was addressing publishers at the first birthday party for the new store on London’s Charing Cross Road last week. “It seems the move to digital has slowed down. We didn’t know it was going to happen, but there is a return to the physical book.”
Some measure of the respect the UK publishing industry has for Foyles could be seen by the turn-out for the party. Heads of houses and senior editors and agents included Penguin Random House Deputy Ian Hudson, Simon & Schuster CEO Ian Chapman, Pan Macmillan CEO Anthony Forbes Watson, Curtis Brown Chairman Jonathan Lloyd, Carole Blake of Blake Friedmann, Carole Welch of Hodder and Alan Samson of Orion.
Everyone clearly loves the new store, arguably the best received new bookstore in central London since Waterstones opened its Piccadilly store back in 1999. Those were different days then, without the multiple threats that bricks and mortar face today. For Foyles to make the commitment to physical bookselling it has done – albeit with an online offer too – is an extremely brave move. Everyone has been watching it closely. If this store fails it could be seen as physical bookselling’s last hurrah; instead, it is being seen as a symbol of physical’s fight back.
Reassuringly, Foyle had figures to back this up too. “We were somewhat apprehensive when we were planning this. Some of our customers had concerns. What if we got it wrong? Well we didn’t. We did better than that. We created a space that our founders, our grandparents William and Gilbert Foyle, would be proud of. A fresh and exciting emporium of the written word. A market place for ideas.
“We were honored and humbled by our special booktrade award at the Bookseller Awards dinner, but at the end of the day it’s the trading results that count. We are consistently up each week on the same week in the old building in the previous year, some by 5%, others by 20%. Now the hard work starts to improve on those figures for next year.”
The famous name is certainly not standing still. All eyes will soon be on Foyles new store in Birmingham, the UK’s second city, due to open in September and referred to by the company’s new CEO Paul Currie – who joined earlier this year from the famous toy retailer, Hamleys – as “our model store of the future.”
Details are being kept under wraps, but Currie said “it will be an experiential destination where physical meets digital. Embracing the world of omni-channel retailing is no longer a choice but a necessity. Customers today are presented with so many shopping choices, in store, online, click and collect. The terms of engagement have changed and smart retailers have recognized this. Surprisingly, today’s retailing is not all about price – it is more about availability, the richness of service and the quality of experience. Foyles will be adopting a more inclusive culture, which bridges the physical and digital through a series of initiatives.”
He added: “William Foyle was a man of vision that broke the mould of the traditional 20th century bookseller. He brought theatre and experience in a very entrepreneurial way to an industry that was the domain of intellectuals and the wealthy. He brought books to everyday people. I know he would have approved of the initiatives and theatre that are part of 21st century Foyles, with more innovation to come.
Finally, tributes were paid to Foyles’ outgoing CEO Sam Husain who is retiring (though staying on as a non-executive director) and who oversaw the move to the new site. He was rightly honored at the Bookseller Industry Awards where he received the Booksellers Association award for Outstanding Contribution to the Book Trade.
On a winter’s evening, with its lights ablaze, this store can seem like a great ocean liner of books. The whole industry wishes it safe passage.