This October, The English Bookshop on Zürich’s Bahnhofstrasse celebrates its fifteenth birthday.
Jill talked to manager Sabine Haarmann and Nick Schorp about the history of this Zürich institution, how it has weathered the storms of publishing, and what’s on the horizon.
Bookstores all over the world are closing, you’re in a prime location in central Zürich, publishing is undergoing huge changes … so fifteen years really is something to celebrate! How did The English Bookshop start?
Sabine: There’s been an English bookshop here for over 100 years, as previously Stäheli was on this site. Orell Füssli took over in 1998/1999 and the shop was closed for nine months while being refurbished. We opened on November 30th, 1999, and got off to an incredible start. It was a great success. Despite being owned by a Swiss company, we were allowed to do what we wanted, and one of our principles was that we were an English Bookshop, all our communication was in English and, once in the shop, you could be in Britain or the US.
Nick: We started out with only two floors, around 400 square metres of space. Six years later, every single section needed more space, so in 2005, we opened up the basement. We had the ‘Go Underground’ campaign, with the Tube logo. One of the most important factors in our success is the passion of our staff. They know and love books and the effect of hand-selling by experts can’t be underestimated.
Sabine: And our customer profile has changed. From being largely expats, it’s now broadened to include Swiss people who like to read in English.
It sounds like fifteen years of growth and success. Have there been any downturns?
Sabine: There was a dip in 2002, post 9/11, understandably. And again in 2007/2008 when the credit crunch hit around the world. Currently there are big changes with price drops and the influence of Amazon.
Nick: Most people don’t realise that Amazon kept prices low but initially made no profit in order to grab market share. We can’t do that. We’re on the most expensive street in Zürich and, when our rent was renegotiated in 2010, it increased to three times the previous figure. But we think creatively about how to maintain our independence and offer the customer a different kind of experience, something you can’t get elsewhere; expertise, special books and the food.
Sabine: The food has been an amazingly successful venture. People come in just for that and then browse the books at the same time. We had some difficulties with regulations, as the authorities wanted ingredients in German printed on everything, but once we gave in and did that, we’ve found it a really important sideline.
Nick: And while people complain about paying 17 Francs for a paperback, they think nothing of buying a packet of cereal for 12 Francs! It also tends to be the place people meet. Someone says, ‘Ooh, look, there’s Vegemite!’ and another person will say, ‘Oh, you’re from Australia?’ … and a conversation starts.
So since the takeover by Thalia, it seems not much has changed, at least looking at it from this angle.
Sabine: There have been changes and there will be more behind the scenes, but we are still regarded as a slightly exotic branch of the company, as we make such a feature of our passion.
Are you optimistic for the future? Not just for The English Bookshop but booksellers as a whole.
Nick: Shops will have to become more special. I think chains will have it worst. Individual bookshops who respect craftsmanship and understand readers are more likely to survive.
Sabine: There will be casualties, but I believe there will be a revival. People love books. Probably fewer than 5% of the population, but those who do are passionate. New possibilities are arising, such as children and YA fiction. People are likely to buy their genre fiction online, but non-fiction and the more unusual treasures are to be found in the bookshop.
Nick: Although even with genre, we are able to give insider tips and recommendations. Plus we don’t just recommend the new releases, we can suggest rediscoveries, classics they might love and have never read.
Sabine: We’ve actually made bestsellers! If there’s a book all the staff love, we promote it and generate a readership.
So which books have impressed you most this year?
Nick: The new David Mitchell, of course. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. And there’s so much great stuff coming out this Autumn, including the new Poirot by Sophie Hannah. I love Agatha Christie so I’m really looking forward to that.
Sabine: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson, and although it’s not from this year, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski. Perfect if you love dogs.
And, lastly, how are you celebrating the big birthday?
Sabine: With music, food and drink! From the 23-26 October, we’ll be having special discounts, a children’s event, 15 new releases for 15 francs, and a party!
Jill: Happy Birthday, and here’s to the next 15 years!