Local independent bookshop Fox Books in Leicester, United Kingdom, and the future of physical bookshops…

By Thomas Bohm of User Design, Illustration and Typesetting. Published 23rd March 2023. Updated 11th April 2023.

We ordered 3 books from Fox Books a local independent bookshop mainly stocking fiction this week, in Leicester city centre. We try to avoid Amazon, because apart from the obvious reasons as reported in the news, very soon their warehouses will be run by robots and will not support people (humans) or local workers at all…

Photograph of the front of the Fox Books bookshop, shows a blue front, with door and windows either side. Red and orange bricks on either side, then a grey roof above. Pavement in front, with a wooden foldable sign
Fox Books, Leicester city centre, United Kingdom

So it made us ask the questions:

  • What is a physical bookshop today in 2023, we mean a shop or store that stocks a range of physical books that you go into physically, with maybe someone helpful their to guide and support you?
  • What purpose does it have, what can it offer that online book retailers, and ordering through the internet cannot?
  • What do physical bookshops need to do, to beat or compete with the challenges of the 1 click credit-card-stored buying online?

It is an interesting question, and 1 that we would like to ask, being curious and creative designers.

We like local physical bookshops, they are nice because we can choose from range of delivery notification options, when we order books like:

  • SMS message.
  • Telephone call.
  • Email.

We are often in town and can pick-up books at our own convenience, however, this is not the case for everyone, as many people do not go to town regularly, or have busy lives or find it too inconvenient to make a special journey to a physical store… when ordering online, and getting it delivered to where they live, is more ideal.

We were chatting with the owner of Fox Books, and he said he gets basically the difference between the retail price and the trade price. In our example, the trade price is 66% of the retail price that is £10 = £6.67, £6.67 (trade price) - £10 (retail price) = £3.33 (final profit). Although as clear as the previous sounds, the final profit is not as clear or guaranteed as the previous calculations. Ross Bradshaw from Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham, United Kingdom says ‘the final profit percentage is highly variable, not exact or standardised’. The owner of Fox Books uses the profit to pay his bookshop’s bills and support anyone else, like his family and so on. If we did not order through our local bookshop, then billionaires would get that money and they could be anywhere in the world, and then the owner of our local bookshop does not get any money and has problems running his business, or cannot run it at all…

What are the benefits of ordering books through a physical local bookshop?

  • Feel good, meet someone and get exercise.
  • Find and discover something unexpected, but this can also happen online through suggestion features or customers who bought this, also bought x, y and z features.
  • Events and meet-ups at a physical bookshop (meeting physically and doing it online are different experiences).
  • Speak with the person on the till and find out something new or personal, not offered by an online checkout form or pop-up chat option.
  • Support someone financially in the local community that probably only lives a few miles away.
  • Do a very direct action, both financially and emotionally (once again directly supporting the local community).
  • You can hold and look through the physical thing, although there are free previews online, where you can assess some of the book’s content.

What are the downsides of ordering books online through worldwide corporations?

  • It is almost a guarantee that a high percentage of your money goes into someone’s pocket who is not living, or is not a United Kingdom resident, or taxpayer.
  • In the near future, your orders will be processed by computers and dispatched by robots, that has no benefit to employment rates or human living standards in the United Kingdom.
  • On the delivery date, you might not be home or have to take a day off work. It could then not arrive or you miss the delivery person, then you have to do it all over again another day (that could amount to 2 days lost).
  • Very indirect or not direct at all, making it is hard to tell who, where and what is benefiting, from your order money.

We can see the above is certainly in support of physical local bookshops, nevertheless we would still like to offer the information. But hold on, not everything is so bright… 6 months ago (halfway through 2022) we went to order a book from a physical Waterstones store. We told the woman at the till the ISBN and she said ‘our computer systems have been down for the last 2 weeks, we cannot search for or order any books, neither in-store or online… Sorry sir’. (And by the way we have nothing against Waterstones, we would like to clearly note.) It took 15 minutes to travel to the Waterstones store, then another 15 minutes to get back. Should I have even bothered, and why would I promote and support a physical chain of bookshops, if they cannot even order any books?

What about the 2nd-hand book market?

A downside to physical bookshops is that they cannot always order books if they are not in print. They are usually not able to order 2nd-hand books and then tell you to look on 2nd-hand bookshop websites, like Amazon or AbeBooks. There is millions of pounds in sales from 2nd-hand book sales every year. This might seem okay and not problematic, although… the author and publisher of the 2nd-hand book that you buy, gets £0 for your purchase… This is the same for the 2nd-hand vinyl sales, a market that is growing year-on-year, turning-over millions of pounds a year. Some 2nd-hand vinyls can sell for £100s, and once again the musician/s who made the music and the record label, get £0 for the 2nd-hand purchase (sounds a harsh deal hey, well it is). And furthermore, if the truth be told, many 2nd-hand vinyl’s sell for 2 or 3 times the originally (brand new) purchased price. Should it be banned or illegal to buy 2nd-hand books and vinyls? If not, as is currently, then how to repay the creator and publisher for their hard work? Send them a percentage of the 2nd-hand sale price? But how do we, or companies like AbeBooks (books) or Discogs (vinyls) make this a reality and enforce it?

These are all things we have to think about now because we are living in hybrid times, and the creator once again is losing out and they made the thing in the 1st place. We (people, customers and citizens of the United Kingdom) are increasingly spending our money with international businesses, not even knowing or acknowledging this, and this is destroying local United Kingdom businesses at a very fast speed.

How cool are bookshops compared to music or video game shops?

In the last 9 years (Guardian, 2013) there has been a massive boom in physical book sales because of their preciousness, simplicity, sensory feeling and physicality. And not just books, but ancient vinyls. Both of them are thriving in a highly technological era. We are living in hybrid times, some of the ancient, some of the old, some of the current, and some of the new. How cool is a physical bookshop in 2023 for young, middle-aged and ageing people, compared to a music or video game shop? Why does it have to be printed books or ebooks, or mp3s or vinyls… ‘Why can we not just use what we need, why does it have to be 1 or the other’ as a friend (Anonymous, 2014) once said.

The printnet (but what is that..?)

If people need to know something, maybe they ask someone, go somewhere, go online, or watch a tutorial on YouTube. Although people think if it is not on the internet, then it does not exist, but of course, there is a much older and mature technology than the only 24-year-old internet, that would be the 500-year-old printnet (some might ask, what is that..?) There is no play button, no bots or AI (artificial intelligence) on the printnet, you have to find and get the information yourself. It requires:

  • Effort.
  • Thought.
  • Concentration.
  • Consciousness.
  • Consideration.
  • Reviewing.
  • Comparing.
  • Contrasting.
  • Processing.
  • Sieving.

The printnet will give you next to nothing if you do not really want it, and this is 1 of the medium’s great great strengths. It requires a certain input and effort, to get something back and in return. The printnet is not an effortless medium. But hang on a moment… I am in singular support for a medium ‘Why can we not just use what we need, why does it have to be 1 or the other’ as a friend (Anonymous, 2014) once said…

Physical bookshops after Covid-19

Rama Gheerawo, director of The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design (HHCD) at the Royal College of Art says (HHCD, 2022, p. 2):

‘To say that the year [2021] since our last Design.Different has been interesting would be an understatement! It has been a time of widespread change and transition. Most of the world has gone from a state of lockdown, in which people were tied to their homes and neighbourhoods, to 1 in which we can open our eyes and attention outwards as we step back into the world. This is where we make a call for inclusive design to reach further and wider than ever. Inclusive design has always aimed to address social issues and instances of exclusion. Now, many of these have become critical’.

Ninela Ivanova (HHCD, 2021, p. 22) innovation fellow at the Royal College of Art also says:

‘The global impact of Covid-19 has posed unprecedented challenges to business continuity — the greatest worldwide societal and economic disruption since the Second World War. The pandemic has ushered in a new question for business and industry: How can businesses continue, recreate, start-up, transform and thrive in an environment that is almost entirely virtual? Actively enabling can-do teams, collaboration, smart technology uptake, and cushioning financial shock, are some of the urgent business continuity challenges we face’.

We would also suspect that since the 1st lockdown in March 2020, a lot of business that was going through physical stores, is now going through purely online stores, and maybe never to return back to a physical presence… 1 of the issues of the internet and online ordering is that it brings about singularity and increased unconscious isolation for customers. Is this good or bad? Covid-19 and the lockdowns had a devastating impact on the United Kingdom. Our city centres are ghost towns, we would estimate a 30%–50% loss in shops and people (footfall), and even whole loss and closure of businesses… Rent rates are increasingly extortionate, unaffordable and bankrupting, disabling growth or new business initiatives (nothing new about that). Things are changing and have changed. Doing what has been done in the past might not butter the bread now…

Standout points that physical bookshops need to acknowledge and consider

  • Offer amazing customer service (whatever that might be) and go above and beyond the call of duty (and please note, it does seem any bad customer service, leads to more chance of ordering online…).
  • Full and extensive range of order notification, pick-up and delivery options.
  • Enable customers to order any book, either in print or 2nd-hand.
  • Offer other aspects to the static physical bookshop, like events, café, films, music, author readings and signings.
  • Actively scout and source books that the customers will want to read, either at the same quality standard and area, or going the extra mile, by exceeding their expectations. Then contact them once a month.
  • Offer a yearly paid membership option to get the costs back of doing the previous point. 1 of our clients Persephone Books could be a good reference and example.
  • Treat customers like clients or personal friends, and really get to know what they might want. Contact or telephone them once a month.
  • Do sales through both the physical store and online. (Small and independent bookshops would probably not be able to setup an e-commerce website to do this and cover all books available worldwide, so a partnership with a larger organisation like Waterstones, would be more doable. Then the physical bookshop needs a way to get profits back from the online sale through the 3rd party e-commerce book website. Ross Bradshaw from Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham, United Kingdom says ‘There is no chance of a partnership with Waterstones, but those shops who are not big enough to have their own e-commerce website, can use https://bookshop.org’.)
  • Offer postal delivery service, as well as in-store pick-up.
  • Offer a very expert and specialised focus of information, so the bookshop becomes known in the area and beyond in the region (for whatever subject/area this might be?).
  • Stock magazine, academic journals or other specialist publications.
  • It might be worth thinking of a physical bookshop in terms of an information centre, tourist information centre, or hub. Rather than a static selective collection of books.
  • Try and get people queuing up in lines outside physical bookshops, as seen with new Apple or clothing products.
Blue square background, with a large circle in the middle, then a cartoon fox reading a book, holding it in 1 hand
Fox Books logo

Things are changing and have changed. Doing what has been done in the past might not butter the bread now…

Fox Books, Leicester

Website: https://www.foxbooksltd.com, telephone: (U.K.) 0116 251 0198, Bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/foxbooksltd, Hive: https://www.hive.co.uk/Shops/Fox-Books-Leicester, Twitter: https://twitter.com/foxbooksltd, Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/foxbooksltd/, Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FoxBooksLtd/.

Find your local bookshop in the United Kingdom or United States

Books can be ordered from any up-to-date bookshop worldwide. If you live in the United Kingdom, you can find your local bookshop via the Hive Bookshop Finder, or if they are a member of the Booksellers Association via the Booksellers Association Bookshop Finder. If you live in the United States, you can find your local bookshop using the Bookshop.org Store Locator.

Notes

Many thanks to Ross Bradshaw from Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham, United Kingdom (website: https://fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk, Twitter: https://twitter.com/FiveLeavesBooks, Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FiveLeavesBookshop/, Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/fiveleavesbookshop/) for his many comments on this article.

References

Bury, L. (2013, November 23). Young adult readers ‘prefer printed to ebooks’. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/25/young-adult-readers-prefer-printed-ebooks.

Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design (HHCD). (2021, October). Design.Different, 2, 22. Royal College of Art. https://rca-media2.rca.ac.uk/documents/Design.Different_2021_Accessible_2.pdf.

Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design (HHCD). (2022, September). Design.Different, 3, 2. Royal College of Art. https://rca-media2.rca.ac.uk/documents/Design.Different_2022_Digital.pdf.

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About the author

Thomas Bohm studied graphic communication design at college (BTEC, Leicester College, U.K.) and university (BA, Norwich University of the Arts, U.K.). Runs User Design, Illustration and Typesetting, a graphic communication design, illustration, text editing and production service. He helps book publishers, organisations and businesses, design and communicate better with their users, focusing on graphic communication design that works well for all involved. Occasionally does self-initiated research, writing and publishing. Has published papers in Baseline, Slanted, Boxes and Arrows, Typography.Guru, Information Design Journal and Usability Geek. Has won international design awards and is a fellow of the Communication Research Institute.

User Design, Illustration and Typesetting offer a range of services like book design, information design and accessible website design. Contact us to find out more, or to read more writing from us, visit our news, writing and awards webpage.

Copyright

All writing and photography copyright © Thomas Bohm, User Design, Illustration and Typesetting. Copyright means you have to get permission from us, to reuse our writing or photography in any way, and on any media.

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