What the book trade can teach wine

The book trade has had a difficult time in the pandemic, but some of their solutions may be applicable to wine, says Robert Joseph.

Photo by Natalia Y on Unsplash
Photo by Natalia Y on Unsplash

What do Amazon and a Paris institution called Shakespeare and Company have in common? 

Both sell books. 

The US giant sells over $6bn worth of books, but as a share of its turnover, they now represent less than a handful of percent. And of course, almost all of those volumes are purchased over the internet.

Shakespeare and Company is a Paris landmark: a small, family-owned retailer of new and second-hand books since 1951. Until the arrival of Covid-19, as Sylvia Whitman, its owner, recently revealed to the Financial Times, the shop only handled around 100 online orders per week. Its customers preferred to wander and browse its two floors where struggling authors have been allowed to sleep overnight in return for a few hours work in the shop.

While Jeff Bezos always intended to use internet bookselling as a stepping-stone to a far broader operation, Whitman’s decision to beef up her online business was made out of desperation. As France moved into its second lockdown a few weeks ago, Shakespeare and Company’s sales fell by nearly 80%. An email titled ‘Hard Times’ sent to customers across the world instantly yielded 5,000 orders, but this wasn’t enough. In order to help pay the rent for the months when the shop was closed, Whitman launched a program called Friends of Shakespeare and Company. The revival of an idea introduced for similar reasons during the Great Depression by Sylvia Beach, founder of the predecessor to her shop, Whitman’s version offers its members a number of options. For €45, they get four digital “installments”, including “a mix of video, audio, and new writing—such as a recorded conversation with a celebrated author, a behind-the-scenes tour of the bookshop, an essay from a renowned writer, and a short story read by a much-loved actor.” A further €45 buys a “a limited-edition Friends of Shakespeare and Company enamel pin”, while €250 brings access to “quarterly online book club (live discussions with celebrated authors).”

The key to the club, as keen-eyed readers will have noticed, is that it is not about selling books. What Whitman – and Beach before her – realised was that her business is not simply a matter of selling words printed on paper; it’s about literary experiences; being immersed in a world of books and writers and like-minded souls.

Cinema owners will have to be similarly inventive. In October, at around the time that Whitman was composing her email, over 70 movie directors, including Martin Scorsese, James Cameron and Clint Eastwood joined James Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson and other industry members in writing to the leaders of the US Senate and Congress pleading for financial assistance to prevent over two thirds of US cinemas being put out of business by the pandemic. Less than two months later, Warner, one of the biggest studios, administered another blow by announcing that all of its films will now be available via its streaming service on the same day they are released in movie theatres. 

 An evening visit to a cinema involves more than spending a couple of hours watching actors on a screen. Some movie theatres now allow customers to eat and drink while engrossed in the film, but this is just the start, just as the introduction of sampling from Cruvinet machines is only a first step by wine retailers to move beyond the basic business of supplying bottles of fermented grape juice.

In 1947, Leo McGivena, publicity manager of a New York newspaper called The Daily News, memorably described the gap between what is sold and what is bought when he wrote: “Last year over one million quarter-inch drills were sold – not because people wanted quarter-inch drills but because they wanted quarter-inch holes.”

People buy wine for all sorts of reasons, but few of these have anything to do with whether it was grown on chalky soil or made with wild yeasts, or in a chateau built in 1532. This kind of information will only contribute fleetingly to a small number of buyers’ experience when they come to take their first sip of it, or the last after emptying the bottle.

Far more important will probably be the company, the environment the food and quite possibly the glassware and, of course, the flavour and the alcoholic buzz. Then again, the wine might be an alternative to beer: a barely acknowledged lubricant for relaxation and intercourse of every kind. 

Retailers can follow Whitman’s lead by offering a deeper, more involving experience, or Bezos’s by simplifying the process of getting wine into the home – by offering a bag-in-box subscription service, for example. 

I love the experience of tasting cheese and learning about it before I make a purchase in a specialist shop, but I also appreciate the convenience of having someone I’ve never met deliver four bottles of milk to my door three times per week and taking away the empties. And to be honest, provided it tasted okay, that same stranger could also bring some red or white and some beer to drink with a Wednesday night pizza while watching the Queen’s Gambit.

Whitman’s final comment to the FT caught my attention “If nothing else, I’ve learned that you really need to be malleable and be the phoenix that is reborn into something else.” Phoenixes come in more than one shape and size.

Robert Joseph


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