It takes a more ruthless person than me to walk past any of the defunct branches of Borders without feeling some pangs of conscience. I am sure the chain made some mistakes (it had a strange habit of opening vast, hangar-like stores in out-of-town retail parks such as Lakeside, places not generally known for their wide-ranging literary tastes), but its shops were usually well stocked and staffed. No, it is people like me who are responsible for this bankruptcy, our every Amazon visit a further nail in the coffin of the traditional bookseller. How long before the proper bookshop becomes as rare on our streets as the traditional tobacconist?
I would feel a little less guilty about the part I played in Borders’s demise if I thought their high-street properties would be used for something useful. But they will probably re-emerge as yet more shops selling women’s clothes or shoes, making our town centres even more monotonous than they are now. (If environmentalists are serious about tackling waste and over-consumption, they could usefully start by asking why women need 15 times as many shops to clothe themselves as men do.)
So, if our high streets are to be any more interesting than a random array of women’s clothing chains interspersed with coffee shops, what can be done? One solution might lie in technology such as the Espresso Book Machine, film footage of which can be seen online at http://twurl.nl/6hpoyw.
If you have stayed at a hotel which offers you facsimile editions of the world’s newspapers, you have already experienced printing on demand — the Espresso Book Machine simply takes this approach and applies it to the production of books instead of newspapers. It can print, glue, bind, cover and trim a paperback-quality book in about two minutes, at a cost of about one cent per page. The idea is that high street, railway or airport bookshops could operate these machines (they occupy no more space than a large photocopier), allowing you to walk up and order a copy of Ulysses in Finnish and collect it a few moments later. Potentially you could fit a bookshop with the range of the British Library into one of those coffee kiosks you find on train stations.
In many ways, there is a great future for shops in implementing ideas like this — ideas which combine the best of the physical world with the best of the digital world. Yet, with the singular exception of Argos, it is amazing how few businesses have successfully merged the two. When you think about it, it is absurd how often shops still answer the question ‘Do you have this in green?’ with ‘I’m sorry, no’ rather than ‘Let me order you one online’. Most retailers, if they have an online division, treat it almost as if it were a competitor. And it still amazes me that, when you buy a pair of trousers, say, there is no online-code attached for you to order a replacement.
The best idea I heard recently was from a pizza delivery chain which was investigating the technology to download and record any DVD of the customer’s choice while the pizza was cooking in the oven — so you could order a Tarantino to be delivered with your Fiorentina. The high street needs more ideas like this.