Saturday, 7 April 2007

Rearranging the Deckchairs

After the session at the Art Club, I took a wander into town.

On a whim I strolled into J G Windows in the Central Arcade. There's always something of interest in Windows. They have a policy of buying one copy of every CD released in the UK. Naturally enough, they don't manage to sell them all, so it can be a profitable exercise to call in to check if they're having a sale.

Shock horror! The firm have been taken over and the store is being "rearranged."

The first and most obvious rearrangement is the absence of the the huge and chaotic CD racks behind the counter where they filed the discs to put into the cases when you went to buy. All replaced by an alcove with some DVDs and a fire-damaged piano.

Most deplorable of all, however, is the total absence of the helpful staff. In both the Jazz and the Classical sections, there were people who Knew Their Stuff. If they couldn't help you from their own personal knowledge, they had piles of catalogues and would spare no effort to find and order whatever it was you were looking for.

Now? There's a girl with a till. She can, however, "tell you where the jazz section is ..."

I walked off under a cloud. And found myself climbing the stairs up to the art section of Waterstones. Ever since Waterstones took over the Dillons chain, Newcastle has had the daft situation of two Waterstones stores staring at one another across the area round Grey's Monument. It might have seemed a sensible solution to rationalise the content of the two shops, putting some departments in one, the rest in another. But no, we have two bookshops with more or less the same stock. I was climbing the stairs in the one that used to be Dillons.

When I got to the Art section, there was a rather hassled-looking girl flinging books onto shelves with reckless abandon, oblivious to the few punters who stood about trying to see what she was putting on the shelves.

I went to the Poetry section and read some Simon Armitage until she was done with her rearrangement.

And what wonders had she wrought? Much of the stock - never very interesting, but sometimes containing a little neglected gem someone had thought to order in - had been whittled down and then padded out with Taschen books in their many sizes.

In what way is a bookshop fulfilling its function by putting seven copies of Taschen's Gauguin on a shelf, leaving the rest empty space?

I read recently that Waterstones is to close 34 of its stores round the country (this, after winning a contentious bid to take over the liked and respected Ottakers chain). In the rest of their shops they intend to concentrate on the more popular titles like celebrity biographies, cookery and so on.

Are these people absolutely mad?

It seems to me that Windows and Waterstones are set on demonstrating their complete misunderstanding of the modern market. Sales of books and records are falling off in the High Street because people are learning more and more the ease and lower costs involved in buying online. Where actual book and record stores can compete is in catering to the niche shopper. The person who likes to go to a shop and find unexpected treasures, things they wouldn't have known they were looking for, or couldn't find easily online.

With two major record stores (HMV, Virgin) and music departments in WHSmith and Woolworths all vying for custom, I think Windows are likely to go down the tubes and I'd be surprised if at least one of the Waterstones doesn't follow suit.

And the cultural life of Newcastle will only be the poorer.


ian gordon said...

A large and wonderful branch of Waterstones in Nottingham closed down recently.

And I know only too well what you mean about that record shop. I knew of one exactly like that in Mansfield that had a "one of everything" policy. Happily though the Virgin store in Nottingham has a large classical, jazz, and blues section.

The issue of being served by people in shops that know nothing about their product really irritates me. (As mentioned on my recent post when some idiot wanted to start taking my canvas off its stretcher, cut it down, and stick it behind glass). And these are not "kids", or inexperienced teens on job ops.

Mr Zip said...

Interestingly, in terms of record stores, the reverse holds true in Newcastle. Despite some "rationalisation" the HMV store still has a good jazz, blues and classical section. The Virgin store is rubbish.

ian gordon said...

But how refreshing is that? Okay, so you miss out on the good stuff, but nice to know the "corporate brand" is variable. It's like finding out one of the MacDonald's or Col Sanders doesn't use the same recipe as all the rest.

jafabrit said...

I was wondering why there were two waterstones there. I went into the other one thinking there must be something different in there. The attitude at the sales desk was snotty indifference, of course I was competing with a posh pretty blonde DUH!

Mr Zip said...

Ian - I take your point. I suppose the varying quality is down to the tastes of the stores' buyers. That doesn't seem to work as well where you've got two branches of Waterstones, unfortunately.

Jafabrit - I find the attitudes of the staff in Waterstones quite variable, but I suppose that could be said of other shops. I can never understand why workers don't realise that being pleasant and helpful to the public makes their own day more enjoyable.