Foyles' flagship bookstore on Charing Cross Road in London is one of the most famous bookshops in the U.K.—and one of the most innovative. In 2014, the store, which has been in operation since 1903, moved down the street from its dusty, labyrinthine former premises into a sleek new space in the building that was formerly home to Central St. Martin's College of Art and Design. That same year Foyles, which now includes three other locations in London as well stores in Birmingham, Bristol, and Stratford, was reinvented with the theme of physical meets digital.
Today each Foyles employee carries a tablet in a sling, which gives the employees mobile access to a proprietary app that directs customers to titles on the shop floor and lets employees take home-delivery orders for books that aren't in stock. "The booksellers have told me that they feel naked if they don't have their tablets with them," says Foyles CEO Paul Currie. Having tablets also helps younger booksellers, who may have less extensive knowledge of the store's stocks, get up to speed faster, he adds.
That said, Currie, who came to Foyles in April 2015 from U.K. cosmetics company Molton Brown, notes that he has actually "dialed back on digital." He prefers to emphasize the seductiveness of the physical bookstore and to increase the interactions between customers and booksellers. "I think in the digital age our competitive advantage is our people," Currie says. "The Internet offers what bookselling was 20 or 30 years ago: shelves in alphabetical order from which you pick a book, buy it, and leave. That is Amazon. In our bookstores, we want customers to feel the logic, empathy, and connection that is human."
A cornerstone of Currie's brief tenure has been the implementation of a professional-development program for booksellers. Dubbed Barnum, after the 19th-century circus impresario to whom the original founders of Foyles were once compared, the program promotes four principles (which Currie will discuss during his Winter Institute address) aimed at helping booksellers be more "mindful" and connect better with customers. "Traditionally, book lovers tend to be self-contained, and many were attracted to the profession of bookselling because they wanted an extension of their hobby," Currie says. "We try to help them be more open and aware, reminding them that the bookselling profession is about sharing that love."
While Foyles' flagship is some 37,000 sq. ft. in size, the satellite and regional stores are significantly smaller, at 4,500–5,000 sq. ft. Currie has promoted former booksellers to head the retailer's in-house digital-marketing and customer-experience teams. Ultimately, he says, the goal is to make the bookstores "more sticky," whether that is by offering knitting circles or wireless-audio listening stations, where one can hear recordings of authors discussing their latest books.
"We have seven stores and our nearest competitor, Waterstones, has 270, so we have to work with our strengths," Currie says. "We can do this by becoming known as the family-owned local book retailer, one that is playful, fun, and relevant. For this reason, we're not afraid of Amazon. We are not an algorithm. Nor are we librarians. We are passionate booksellers. We want to be considerate of people's needs and be of genuine service to our community."