x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

From a pin to a paperback

The Life: From bookshops inside of hardware stores to booksellers with their own electronic readers, the industry - both here and abroad - is being forced to evolve.

Mike McGinley has seen a rise in sales at Book & Bean when it was incorporated with Ace Hardware at Dubai Festival City. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Mike McGinley has seen a rise in sales at Book & Bean when it was incorporated with Ace Hardware at Dubai Festival City. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

Those looking to fix up their homes can now pick up paint and brushes at a local Ace Hardware shop, flip through old paperbacks and sip lattes - all without leaving the store.

The recent redesign of Ace Hardware at Dubai Festival City incorporates a Book & Bean store as part of Mike McGinley's efforts to revitalise his used-book business. Known for running two other shops under the House of Prose brand, Mr McGinley says he has seen an upturn in sales that he attributes to the new coffee-infused concept.

"Maybe stand-alone bookshops aren't going to be as they once were in the good ol' days," says Mr McGinley, who is in talks with Ace Hardware to expand thecollaboration to Yas Island in Abu Dhabi.

In western countries, sales of traditional books have been flagging at many bookshops, from the locally owned neighbourhood stores up through the large corporate chains. Revenue from physical titles are forecast to fall an average of 5 per cent this year in the US, according to data from the market research firm iSuppli.

Last year, the US book behemoth Borders filed for bankruptcy, closing hundreds of its retail outlets.

Booksellers in the Middle East say that while the sales downturn has not hit as hard in this region, bookstores face fresh challenges.

Mr McGinley says he had to close one of his House of Prose shops last year because his rent was set to increase. "It was too expensive," he says.

The store relocated to Dubai Garden Centre to take advantage of "lifestyle" shoppers who could visit a nursery, enjoy coffee and browse books.

But there is no one-size-fits-all business model, and booksellers are experimenting to avoid unhappy endings.

Jashanmal Bookstores, which operates 14 shops, including some under the Relay brand, tried out coffee houses in a handful of locations in the past.

But they took up too much space and were "the least productive area", says Narain Jashanmal, the general manager of the company's magazines, books and overseas courier services.

The company now serves coffee in just one shop, "and that'll likely be reconfigured in the not-too-distant future", says Mr Jashanmal. "It actually decreased the productivity of the store."

Still, the company last month recorded its highest book sales in 15 years.

While physical titles still make up about three quarters of inventory at Jashanmal, they average only about half globally, as many bookstores turn to board games, speciality DVDs and renting out shop space to generate revenue, says Mr Jashanmal.

"We're seeing a lot more business models," he says. "The move is even to 60/40 in favour of non-books."

In the UAE, Magrudy's sells many items other than books, including educational toys, cards, gift wrapping and office stationery. Jashanmal offers similar products as well as gadgets such as a writeable LCD notepad and tablet computer.

Some booksellers in the US have famously developed their own electronic readers, including Amazon.com's Kindle and Barnes & Noble's Nook, which have benefited from a surge in demand for digital books.

"As with any market transformation, the e-book revolution provides myriad business opportunities for creative people," writes Andrew Laties in his bookRebel Bookseller, which was revised and re-released last year.

"Far from imperilling the indie storefront bookstore paradigm, this particular change can strengthen it," says Mr Laties, who has helped to launch half a dozen bookselling companies.

Jashanmal has been working on developing its own e-book reader "for quite some time", says Mr Jashanmal. But back-end bureaucracy, such as obtaining rights for different digital editions and determining the most cost-effective strategy, has taken time.

"We have a number of different things we're looking at," he says.