Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Thursday Soapbox:The Perfect Book Store

This is the time of year most people go to book stores. This is the time of year I usually avoid bookstores. Statistics show that at least 50% of book shop revenue is made the last 2 months of the year. That’s nice for them, but it really ruins the whole atmosphere. Long lines, crowded aisles and the ka-ching of cash registers is not conducive to the contemplative mood regularly sought by devout bookworms such as myself. I should be pleased that people are buying books in such numbers, it keeps the shops in business, after all, but all the hurly-burly makes me feel a bit bah humbug.

It got me to thinking: what makes a good book shop? In a way, it’s a personal question, depending on an individual’s likes and needs, so keep in mind, this is my preferences, but feel free to chime in with yours. And since I’m in the U.S. the stores may be different where you live, too.

As mentioned before, quiet is important, that means no piped in music- it’s not a disco. It’s hard to read while dancing, at least I’m guessing it is. Lots of comfy chairs, the kind you sink into and not grouped into a “conversation area”, but scattered through the shop, in little nooks. A coffee house inside the shop is good too, sipping a mocha while leafing through a book is sublime. In my case, it’s also dangerous, since I’m clumsy, so there’s always the risk of spilling chocolate coffee all over that $80 bird book. But I like to live life on the edge. I also enjoy a range of magazines to peruse, including some obscure ones that the libraries don’t carry. And I don’t mean those devoted to cars and body building, either.

There are mostly chain stores in my area, which drove out most of the independent bookstores that I remember fondly. My favorite is probably Half-Price Books, which sells discounted remainders and used books. As a starving artist, their prices fit my budget and their stores are a bit ramshackle, which adds to their charm. A new store which opened last year in a nearby shopping center, which I renamed “Billions of Books”, looks like a trendy engineering firm with its rows of black shelves and harsh lighting. They do have a wider variety of magazines than most and, it must be said, the best tasting mocha of all the coffee places. My local Barnes and Nibble has a two story location with a Starbucks inside. It’s in a fancy mall where yuppies shop, but is surprisingly inviting. The second floor is sort of like a wide balcony and has lots of those cushy chairs. Borders is a block away and specializes in nooks. They have benches as well as chairs, which can make it feel like a locker room without the undressed athletes and can grow uncomfy when reading for long periods. Do you think anyone would notice if I laid down? Hmmm, probably.

Let’s review: quiet, lots of comfy chairs, coffee counter, plenty of magazines and cheap books. As yet, I’ve not found a store with all the ingredients in one place. Is the perfect book store an impossibility? It seems so simple, it’s not like we’re talking World Peace, here. But, as U2 says “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

Jackie is hoping readers tell us what their ingredients are for the perfect bookstore.

Books and coffee cup drawing is courtesy of Faith Clip Art

20 comments on “Thursday Soapbox:The Perfect Book Store

  1. The Literary Omnivore
    December 3, 2009

    A well-stocked magazine aisle, including comic books not just for kids, plenty of cushy armchairs and strategically placed benches, a coffee shop with plenty of yummy snacks and drinks for a person who hates coffee, and a very, very nice science fiction and fantasy section. Barnes & Noble usually does it for me- I’m awfully fond of one a few subway stops away from me that stocks Publishers Weekly.

  2. Christine
    December 3, 2009

    Main Street Books in Sarasota FL. I live up north but go there once a year or so because my husband teaches a course in Sarasota. The book store meets all of the requirements listed above, has the best cook book section I’ve ever seen (one of my requirements) AND, for tourists like me, they ship the books back home. No sales tax if they ship out of state and the sales tax pretty much pays for the shipping. It is also multi generational with a good children’s section. I have been there many times with the kids and I can leave them at the little table with the toys and the stacks of books and wander the shelves with my latte till I put our inevitable pile on the counter to be boxed up. That is what I call service.

  3. bZirk
    December 3, 2009

    To spare your comments section, my reply is here:

  4. Annabel (gaskella)
    December 3, 2009

    My perfect bookstore is one that stocks all the kinds of books I really want to read, and has knowledgeable and friendly staff. My local indie store Mostly Books in Abingdon has all that and more, book groups, toddler reading times, lots of author events, coffee and homemade cakes, cards and some gift items too. But more than anything else, they stock a truly hand-picked selection of wonderful books, and the owners have worked tirelessly since they opened about three years ago to create a literary vibe in Abingdon – so much so that I rarely need to go to nearby Oxford for anything bookish these days.

  5. RosyB
    December 3, 2009

    I have to admit to being a little nostalgic for the days where we had big James Thin, and Bauermeister bookshops in Edinburgh – and then when a third big shiney shop – Waterstones – came in, it really was good. I used to go to the children’s section of each and know that there was a different range and choice of stuff in each one (we’re talking serious esoteric pony and animal books here you understand). And when older – different big art books to drool over.

    Those were the days before coffee shops inside bookshops which are a great invention I feel, but do tend to be noisy and the little cafe tables aren’t always that conducive to browsing through a few tomes to see which you might like. I agree you need more comfy seats in the actual sections so you can sit and have a proper look if you are trying to choose between a few…

    My favourite shops presently are Waterstones West End in Edinburgh and Word Power Books. It down to the friendliness and approachability of the staff, the feel and range of the shops, the lay-out and the proximity of coffee! WWestEnd has a lovely balcony thing going on whilst Word Power doesn’t have a coffee shop, it is right next door to Susie’s Diner which is a yummy relaxed place to eat.

    Word Power Books in Edinburgh as it has its own identity and the books reflect that and the people who run it are lovely. You want to go into a shop not just to look at the range of things you already know about…but to chance across stuff you never knew about. So the shop having its own sort of identity is good. In the days where we had the three biggies in Edinburgh I mention, each had a palpable identity of its own and going in and browsing was a bit of a discovery.

    Lastly have to mention a place in Dublin – The Winding Stair Bookshop and Cafe. Lovely place, books, food and atmos. Spent many happy hours there working and writing too. It is the relaxed vibe and you can be sociable or hide a bit.

  6. Sam
    December 3, 2009

    My favourite bookstore is very close to home – it’s got the comfiest chair in the world, the best snacks and the best prices. Yes, you’ve guessed it – Amazon.

    I would like to say i support Independent bookstores, but the one near my has put me off. It is so exclusive, has well-known authors visit but you are expected to pay £12 for the priviledge of having a sandwich with them whilst they sign your book.

    I do like Waterstones because it is straightforward books. If i want a coffee, i’ll go to a caff:)

    Mind you, i hate all kinds of shopping as a rule, so it is probably just me! I prefer to browse from home.

  7. Nikki
    December 3, 2009

    I am of an age where I’ve never been in what I’d call a “proper bookshop.” The only ones I’ve been in the usual suspects – Waterstones, Borders (and WH Smiths, before the other two opened near me). Then of course, there’s Amazon… But I still hanker after the experience you describe, Jackie. Maybe it’s a bookworm thing?

    I think my favourite so far has to be Waterstones because I can pop in on a weekly basis, there’s plenty of events of and it doesn’t have the superstore feeling that Borders has (although Borders has a great magazine section that I’m going to miss if it goes). The best Waterstones I know is the one in Watford because it’s bigger than my local. What I love is that is big enough to get lost in. Much as I love chatting with staff, sometimes I want to browse in peace and there’s nothing worse than someone eyeing you to see if you’re nicking or creasing a book. I think Waterstones do try to create a bookshop atmosphere if you know what I mean?

    The other day I went into the WH Smiths I used to shop in and because I hadn’t been in months, I’d forgotten that they’d put a coffee shop in. I was horrified! Mainly because the colours of the coffee shop jarred with the Smiths’ colour and it just looked so out of place. Also, it’s not a massive Smiths, so I was gutted to think how much of the book stock had to be reduced. Coffee shops are great, but I like them to fit in, to feel part of the shop rather than a tacked on extra.

  8. annebrooke
    December 3, 2009

    Great article, Jackie! Dare I say that I’m not a great fan of bookshops (shock! horror!)? Like Sam, I prefer doing my shopping online, though I don’t necessarily use Amazon.

    That said, I’m not too flummoxed by the Waterstone’s in Guildford High Street, especially as I can ignore the books, go upstairs, find the map table and do some writing, and nobody bothers me. Plus it’s near the loo (I need to know where the loos are – always!) and it’s on the same level as their Costa Coffee store, hurrah.



  9. Brian Clegg
    December 3, 2009

    I think I’m a freak when it comes to bookshops. I just can’t understand why people want comfy chairs and ambience – for me, reading is a private thing. I don’t want to do it in public, I want to find a book and get home with it as quick as possible. Having said that, I like having a coffee shop in a book store, but I would never think of taking the stock there – it’s just to recover from the ‘retail experience.’

    I appreciate this is a minority view among booklovers, but for me the point of being in a bookshop is browsing the shelves, not sitting in a comfy chair.

  10. RosyB
    December 3, 2009

    Brian, but the comfy chair thing is a to read enough to know if you want to buy. With books quite expensive new, I think it is fair enough to want more than the browsing of tables and reading a couple of first lines.

    For me, that is the difference between the bookshop experience and the online one – that ability to take a look at and a read of a few pages of the book. Online, amazon sometimes does it and the other online retailers are a little slow to offer this feature. It’s a key one for me. And as a lot of my interest in the past has been art books – they are hugely hefty andvery expensive items that I am not buying on a whim but need to know they are good.

  11. Moira
    December 3, 2009

    Unfortunately, this is my favourite bookshop … 😦

    No coffee, no comfy chairs, just well-stocked, lots of nooks and crannies and friendly, knowledgeable and obliging staff who are prepared to get you any book on the planet.

    Not at the moment, of course – but it will rise again. However, in the meantime, it’s all a bit depressing.

    My OTHER favourite is entirely partisan – the original Blackwells on The Broad in Oxford. A veritable Tardis of a bookshop. Quaint, old-fashioned entrance giving no hint of the vast basement stretching under Trinity quad …

    It too now has a cafe corner with comfy sofas … but they don’t exactly encourage you to mix book browsing and coffee-drinking. Mind you, they don’t pbject to you slobbing out on the floor, either … it’s quite common to have to pick your way over recumbent students and dons and their accumulated baggage.

  12. bZirk
    December 3, 2009

    As for ambiance, I only know what that means to me, and it’s not a coffee shop or cute little knick knacks near the cash register — as much as I might love coffee and er, on a rare occasion, some knick knacks. As for going to a bookstore just to read? I don’t know why anyone would want to do that. It’s definitely not the optimal reading experience, but if you’re cheap like me, you want to read enough to know it’s worth opening your wallet, and for me, it’s so much nicer to read when I feel like I can loll around on the furniture. 😀

    But the most important thing to me is a knowledgeable staff, and too often (on my side of the pond) that’s not the case. If it veers off the current bestseller list, then the clerks are usually lost, and some of them even have trouble with the bestseller list.

    Frankly, I end up getting a lot of books through inter-library loan before I buy them or I read what I can on Amazon or Google before I buy.

  13. Lisa
    December 3, 2009

    Really nice piece, Jackie, and I’ve enjoyed reading the comments too. I am most envious of all you people with local bookshops to wander around in. My local Waterstone’s is a forty minute car ride away. Oh well, it could be worse… at least we have a library here!

  14. Sam Ruddock
    December 3, 2009

    Great piece: it’s one of those subjects that really gets people thinking. Beware though, I am about to demonstrate just how judgemental of places I can be.

    I like personality in my bookshop. A massive fiction section is an absolute must, but I also want to find lots of personal reviews of the books too. I like a front of store ‘staff recommends’ section too, which changes on a regular basis. Basically I want the stock to reflect the character of the booksellers there, and that if I approach them with a question I will get a recommendation that is unique to that person on that day. It is all about the passion of the staff for me.

    On top of that I absolutely hate supermarket bookshops. We have a Borders here in Norwich which is little more than a giant floor with below head hight bookshelves everywhere. I want an intimate, nooky, experience in a bookshop. I want somewhere to hide in, to get lost in, to find a book and read in. There used to be a brilliant bookshop in Covent Garden which had a little hidey hole reading cave halfway down the stairs (this was when I was a kid). I remember pestering my parents to take me there all the time, and then spending hours in that little room flicking through books happily.

    But there was an even better bookshop too. It was on a boat! Yes, a boat. It was an old clipper, moored in Greenwich just next to the foot tunnel and was solely a kids bookshop if I remember rightly. For me, bookshops are all about being magical and inspirational and for a kids bookshop, what could be more so than being on a boat? I wish it was still there.

    I had a lovely time in one of the Edinburgh Princes Street Waterstone’s last summer, where I sat down in a corner and read for about 3 hours without one member of staff making me feel guilty. Was so pleasant I decided to buy a book as a thankyou to the shop.

    There’s a really nice independent bookshop just opened in Norwich called The Book Hive which I like because you really feel you could just stop there and read as long as you wish.

    I love bookshops. Until January this year I worked in Waterstone’s and very much enjoyed the experience. Would love to own my own bookshop one day. It would be called ‘Story’s’ and stock nothing but fiction. It would be nooky and comfy and cosy and lovely. Only problem is, it probably wouldn’t make much money!

  15. Claire M
    December 3, 2009

    Great piece – anyone who loves books cares about where and how they buy them. I think one of the things that rarely gets mentioned when discussing why independents struggle against the big chains is that they are rarely large enough, physically, to make book buying a pleasure. My local independent is absolutely tiny – nowhere to even put down your shopping, let alone sit and read. The owner is lovely and friendly but she always asks if you need any help, which isn’t what I want if I’m settling in for a browse – plus you always feel guilty when you leave without buying anything.
    There’s a bit in Nick Hornby’s Long Way Down where the teenage girl character points out that one of the reason people go to Starbucks is that they like the anyonymity, the lack of personal attention from staff, the fact that they can pass through without worrying that people are looking at them or wondering about them. I think that the qualities one looks for in a bookshop are similar to those in a coffee shop. And I know you’re not meant to say it, but a bit of impersonal atmosphere in a place can be no bad thing if what you want is some time to get inside your own head.

  16. Hilary
    December 4, 2009

    Super soapbox, Jackie! Thinking of bookshops makes me come over all reminiscent.

    I’m going to make Moira madly jealous now. A decade or two ago, when in libraries we still had a pretty free hand over how and from whom we bought books, I used to go with colleagues twice a year to Blackwell’s in The Broad, and we used to pick books all day. All our popular stuff and best-sellers were ordered sight unseen, but this was the way we chose the depth and variety for our libraries. I used to pick science and technology, and the then weird and strange topic of Computing, then I was allowed to go and play in the History and Literature sections. Then we just left the books in heaps with our name on, and they were magically swept away at the end of the day, then they were delivered in a few more days. I still remember some of the treasures I found down in that Norrington Room basement.

    We used to do the same at a wonderful bookseller near Paddington, called The Modern Book Company (now no longer in existence). It was right next to St Mary’s Hospital, and had the best line in gruesome surgical textbooks, for which we had very little call, but other than that, it was a treasure house for science and technology. Some of my colleagues were a bit scared of it, because of its speciality, but I loved the place.

    The other thing I remember about Blackwell’s, much earlier in my life, was having sleepless nights over an unpaid account, when I’d run out of money. But they were always very patient, and sent the politest letters suggesting that one might have overlooked etc. Imagine having an account with a bookseller – a cruel thing to offer to an addict.

  17. sharonrob
    December 4, 2009

    What a lovely article Jackie. I love bookshops, reading about them, reading other people’s opinions about them and most of all, visiting them.

    I’m fond of my local Waterstones. It has a nice atmosphere, with just enough comfortable anonymity so that you can relax, a decent cafe upstairs and an excellent history section. I’d like to see more classics, more fantasy and science fiction and a bigger literature section, but as I’m a regular internet shopper, I’m on weak ground for expecting more from them.

    As far as bookshops in other areas go, Waterstones have a lovely branch on Princes Street in Edinburgh – the one where you can sit upstairs in the cafe and gaze at the castle on its escarpment. They are, as you’d imagine, very strong on local writers and they have a lot of them to show off about. If I get a hankering for Muriel Spark when I’m in Edinburgh, that’s where I’d go.

    Although I love modern bookshops and think that Amazon is one of the best things about the net, I miss the bookshops I used when I was growing up. Bookselling in Leeds in the 1970s and 80s revolved around Austicks, a local chain of bookshops. They had a couple of general bookshops, one which served the local FE college, another for the university and polytechnic, a specialist medical and law shop and even, IIRC, a second hand/antiquarian shop on Great George Street. They didn’t have any of the comforts and mod cons we take for granted now, but they had a huge stock and were always up to scratch on what students needed. I don’t remember ever walking out without the text I’d gone in for. I got a shock when I moved to poly in Staffordshire and found myself relying on the local student bookshop there. Apparently, acquiring the texts on the faculty lists wasn’t part of their job, so when 40 first years descended on them, all wanting a particular title on foreign policy, we were told we’d have to wait. . . .you would honestly have thought they were doing us a favour by accepting our custom. Disgruntled students went to a very decent general bookshop instead and not long afterwards, the chains started moving in. Twenty-odd years down the line and the student bookshop is long gone, but the good general bookseller is still in business. I wonder why.

  18. Lynne
    December 8, 2009

    As a Librarian, I would love to see an article on what constitutes the perfect library.

    I have five favourite bookshops in Sydney, Abbeys, Better Read than Dead, Kinokinya, and INfinitas (which is not as lovely as it used to be now it is squished into a much smaller space). Galaxy Bookshop gets an honourable mention too. Sadly, my favourite miltary history bookshop, Napoleon’s, has closed.

  19. Jackie
    December 9, 2009

    Lynne, I’m working on a piece on libraries, which will be posted later this winter. Hope you’ll stop back when it’s up.
    Thanks everyone for commenting, it was a really enjoyable discussion!

  20. Lynne
    December 11, 2009

    Thanks, Jackie. I will keep visiting my favourite book foxes. Life would be very boring without you all.

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This entry was posted on December 3, 2009 by in Entries by Jackie, Non-fiction: psychology, Thursday Soapbox and tagged , , , , .



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