More than words can say

18th September 1998 at 01:00
I have spent the past two years telling the book trade one simple fact. Give children exciting access to books and they'll choose them in equal measure alongside football shirts, crisps and ice-cream.

We don't have a literacy crisis in this country. We have a culture that too often says that books aren't a fun and integral part of contemporary lifestyles. But give children a taste for a bookshop (or library) that welcomes and speaks to them, and you'll have customers for life. Most bookshops and libraries in this country are not places that people - especially young people - want to be seen in, but we are about to see a radical change.

For years in the States, bookstores have been venues in which all ages want to be seen: to meet, to pass time, tune in and chill out. They have welcomed browsers and buyers at any time of day and night. Food, drink, sofas, study spaces, music, reference shelves, film clubs and visiting artists are placed at the heart of an enticing lifestyle shopping experience. Pyjama parties are run for young children where they can cuddle up with mom and dad and a book before bedtime.

Now Borders, one of the US's bookselling giants, has arrived in London. Knowing a thing or two about public relations, they at once spotlighted a singles evening: pick up a partner as well as a paperback. Or, mix your Heineken and Hardy, your Salinger and Sauvignon.

Launching at the start of Britain's National Year of Reading is a shrewd move, too, with further branches due to open this autumn in Leeds, Brighton and Glasgow.

The Borders cocktail is one that has been cultivated over three decades and with the experience of 200 superstores in the US. The new Borders in London's Oxford Street (8am-11pm) calls itself a "books, music, video cafe" and "a great place to meet for breakfast before work, a lunchtime snack, or a glass of wine or beer at the end of the day". Yes, this is a bookshop. I visited early evening when the jazz gets going.

Walking off the street you encounter a global cornucopia of newspapers and magazines. Whether you want the Arizona Republic, La Repubblica or Al Hayat, today's edition awaits. On neighbouring shelves, lavish mail-order catalogues jostle with Practical Fishkeeping, Modern Ferret and Mountain Living. A feature article titled "How to Pasteurise at Home" in Mother Earth News caught my eye. Private Eye will soon have a column devoted to the wackiest article to be found in the store.

Moving up a floor you are struck by the overwhelming sense of space: space to lie down and read, to chat, to promenade. Central shelves are kept below head height, opening up great vistas. The warm maple wood, music and air-conditioning complete a seductive environment.

The black leather sofas and easy chairs remind me of the story from US rivals Barnes and Noble, that in New York this summer they have had to replace sofas with hard seats, after finding too many customers stretching out with a book all day.

Sound Check stations dotted throughout the store allow you to tune in and turn on: as many as 1,000 CDs for all tastes are on tap at any one time.

Borders staff are confident they'll find just about anything among the 150,000 titles in stock. I applied the acid test of seeking out a couple of my own books and duly glowed when they turned up. Even more gratifying was to go to a shelf and see one of the covers facing outwards.

Here you have a real achievement, maximising the number of titles displayed, cover out. Of course, 39,000sqft in which to display does help, but it's also a clear recognition that today's shopper is enticed by seeing the whole product at a glance.

The children's section is spacious and colourful, warmly carpeted with patterns of planets and stars, and neatly tiered to encourage lounging and crawling. Books are displayed at young children's levels, tapes and big books as in evidence as pop-ups and puzzle-packs.

What completes the Borders cocktail? Friday evening R amp; B; Sunday lunch piano concertos; guest appearances - so far from Stephen King and Glenn Hoddle - as part of a regular array of visiting authors; and an impressive selection of teas and coffees.

At this dawn of the National Year of Reading, librarians and booksellers - be aware! Chill out in Borders for an evening and see what access to a book culture can really mean.

Borders Books and Music, Oxford Street, London W1, tel: 0171 292 1600.

Roy Blatchford is a UK director of Reading is Fundamental, and is based at the National Literacy Trust, tel: 0171 828 2435. His Year of Reading tip: begin every meeting at school with a two-minute slot in which you recommend a book to a colleague.

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