Foyles, the famous London independent bookstore, has announced trading results that show it dipping into a loss for the 2014 financial year – albeit on increased turnover. Which prompts the question of how such an independent is faring in today’s book trade, and what its direction should be – although whether Foyles is a true barometer of the UK independent sector or a story all in itself is another matter.
W & G Foyle Ltd. commenced operation in 1903, when two brothers who had failed the UK civil service exam took out an ad to sell their textbooks. (Somehow, in the light of Foyles’s situation 100 years later, this beginning seems very apt.) The store took up its premises in Cecil Court, just off Soho Square, a year later. Ownership remains within the Foyle family, with management of the business passing to Christina Foyle in 1945, who retained control of it until her death in 1999. And at least Foyles is prepared to be candid about the result:
Whilst the business had always been idiosyncratic, its practices became more unusual. Christina placed her trust in few, staff with a specialism were put in a very different department as she believed they’d be lazier surrounded by books on a subject they knew. Few staff stayed long as Christina would summarily sack them before they’d worked for the business for 6 months, at which point they would have been entitled to better employment rights. As a result, standards slipped, many staff had poor English and few knew the business well enough to help customers with enquiries. A lack of stock control meant that the stock-holding ballooned, and whilst other businesses were modernising, in Foyles the piles of dusty stock became ever more unmanageable. Foyles was bound to have what you were looking for, but neither you nor the staff had any chance of finding it. And if you did and wanted to make a purchase you had to navigate the infamous double queuing system that Christina instigated to ensure as few staff as possible handled money.
As (briefly and ludicrously) Foyles’ only warehouseman in the early 1980s, I can confirm all of that, not least as I was interviewed by Christina Foyle in person. Since the book chain passed to other members of the family in 1999, it has striven to turn around, with new practices and new branches, and now, it claims, “flourishes as a successful 21st century bookshop. Gone are the dusty piles, the confusing layout and the archaic queuing system and in their place is a truly modern retailer, but one which has not forgotten the values and virtues of traditional bookselling.”
And as for the actual fortunes of such a rebirth, well: Retail Week reports that: “Foyles has recorded an operating loss of £600,000 [$921,375] for the year following write-offs including relocating its flagship store.” The iconic Cecil Court premises, symptomatic of all that was good and bad about Foyles, has finally gone, as you can see from the picture above, with “a new custom-designed flagship bookshop” opening just across the road in Charing Cross Road (see below).
So is Foyles still in a position to survive and thrive in 2015? “Currently we have four London bookstores and one store in Bristol, as well as this website, which offers delivery to home, business or bookstore, and a Click & Collect option for instore stock items,” states the store’s website. “We also have an ever- increasing number of eBooks available for immediate download.” And its 2.2 percent rise in turnover indicates that people are buying its books, with many of the losses for its trading year one-off writeoffs. But I can’t help but think that Foyles is an extreme case of all that is wrong with “traditional bookselling” as a whole, as well as the publishing industry – too much tradition, too little bookselling. Basically, a massive dose of entitlement which fosters practices actively hostile to customers and bookselling, where booksellers become not the custodians and curators of books and literary culture, but their jailors.
One is tempted to ask whether the author has not only been to Foyles recently, but indeed was ever there, given that Foyles was never in Cecil Court, and has moved next door to its old premises, and not “just across the road”.
I’d love to know where the “massive dose of entitlement” might be, too. Perhaps in an equally inaccurate site?
I have always been a fan of Foyles despite (or perhaps because of) the general chaos and lack of operational consistency or method that seemed to follow this pile of dust over the years. Despite the new store and some efforts to bring order, its cavalier (and chaotically implemented) decision to simply stop support for e-books marks it out as a store to avoid online or in person as far as I am concerned. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear of some new financial failure or even collapse in the near future. Tis a shame but ultimately sentiment and love are not enough to offset the irritation and finally distrust that can be engendered by management foolishness/arrogance that has trumped this old customer’s loyalty.