Daunt Books: Keeping the culture of print alive

With the age of new media (hi, Netflix), how can independent booksellers remain relevant?

by Ruochen Yao

Section where books are arranged by country. © Ruochen Yao

Streams of people constantly come to the Marylebone branch of Daunt Books, the beautiful Edwardian store with oak balconies, viridian-green walls, conservatory ceiling and stained-glass window. Under inviting lighting, books offer themselves irresistibly from every shelf and table.

As a travel bookshop where books are principally arranged by country rather than by category, it has attracted thousands of reading and travelling enthusiasts by word of mouth. Not only can customers find travel guides, but also travel writings, biographies, history books and novels.

© Ruochen Yao

In Marylebone, people are lucky enough to have Daunt, a mini-chain of eight stores which are going from strength to strength. By the end of last year, the company had opened five more branches in Chelsea, Holland Park, Cheapside, Hampstead and Belsize Park. This year, it aims to open two branches outside London, in Buckinghamshire and Essex.

Faced with the recession and competition from retail giants and online bookselling, this shop still manages to expand its reach, all thanks to fiercely loyal customers. This may be credited to how, on top of their wide selection of books, the company puts a lot of effort to have charming and appealing interiors inside each of its stores. “We spend a lot of time to design our bookshop. In the Marylebone branch, which is the main shop, we have our favourite books in the long passage. All the books face outwards on the banks,” says Thomas Neve, the manager of Daunt Books Marylebone.

“That’s really important because people always judge books by the covers and it really does work. Meanwhile, each branch is unique and different but the shelves are all lined with dark green floral Liberty fabrics, and round wooden tables of books are spaced widely apart,” explains Thomas.

© Ruochen Yao

Incredibly, Daunt has outperformed larger competitors whilst steadfastly refusing to engage in aggressive sales tactics. There are no discounts or promotional offers. It helps that the current branches are entirely located in affluent parts of London, such as its Marylebone headquarters and Holland Park.

The two shops they have recently decided to open outside London are also located in “well-off” areas. “This is key to the mini-chain’s success as rich people are more likely to be book readers, and have more disposable income to spend on non-necessary items, which books are,” explains Lisa Campbell, editor of The Bookseller .

It also helps that the stores keep their size and staff numbers down. For instance, the branch in Marylebone has only eight people who work five or seven days a week. “We all do everything. We share in putting together displays, in unpacking boxes and in menial tasks,” says Thomas. “And we don’t have just one person doing fiction, one doing history. We all know a lot about everything so you could run this shop with one person. We try to ensure each shop has its own staff who can recommend something to their customers and know what their customers like.”

Retaining highly trained staff plays a vital role in maintaining high quality customer services. “Their customer service when recommending titles is second-to-none,” adds Lisa. “This is important so that customers trust the shop to recommend the best title for them but also vital in persuading customers to come to them as opposed to shop online. They are paid quite well, so they stay employed by the store and that knowledge is not lost.”

© Ruochen Yao

According to the latest data, print book sales grew last year for the first time in seven years. The majority of the whole book market is still print instead of e-books. It shows that print is not only still in demand, it is on the increase.

Lisa also highlights that the current trends tell us that the “print is dead” mantra peddled by those often outside the industry couldn’t be further from the truth. “There are those who say the publishing industry should not rest on its laurels and instead prepare for ‘the second digital wave’, citing enchanted e-books and digital story games as possible potential disruptors to come, but we aren’t there yet.”

However, the challenge independent bookshops are facing is not just about big chains, online booksellers and the growth of ebooks, but the chaotic and changing lifestyles of people. Lisa explains: “A far greater threat to print books than digital is other media – news, games, films, TV, streaming, etc, which compete for people’s free time along with reading. This threat is getting shaper with the rise of Netflix and smartphone ownership, meaning that consumers can play games while commuting when they might previously have been reading a novel.”

With the plethora of new media available, it will be extremely difficult to stay at the top of the game. Daunt Books, however, is well prepared to weather the storm.

Ruochen Yao is a multimedia journalist trained at Cardiff University’s International Journalism program. Besides jotting in journalistic notes, she spends her free time indulging in bookshops, art, and design. 

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