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The future lies in books backwards

Date Released: Tue, 12 April 2011 13:21 +0200

Source: Business Day

GOOD bookstores are heavenly. They’re a refuge from the world’s cacophony, where you can stare self-righteously at the idiot whose cellphone goes off, where the only silence-breaker permitted is the dinky "ting- ting" doorbell.

Evoking the "deep peace of libraries" that novelist Justin Cartwright refers to in The Song Before It Is Sung, a good bookstore should be like Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Co, a favourite Paris hangout of literary heavyweights. Or like the more modest, but equally inviting, Books store in Strand, run by a friendly tannie with purple hair. Once, in Books, I pulled at a hefty tome and sent tumbling a small tower of paperbacks of which I only managed to catch one, William Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence — a brilliant read. 

But bookstores have changed.

At Montecasino in Fourways, Johannesburg, bibliophiles and bestseller seekers can expect a novel store that’s much more than just a bookshop, fittingly described by the owners as a "theatre of books; a place where your imagination can run wild — a world of literary and entertainment delights".

Called Skoobs, its name (a reversal of the word "books") is the only backwards thing about it. This multidimensional auditorium of well-stocked bookshelves is more like an event, a phantasmagoric porthole into the world of the written word.

From the instant you cross its threshold and encounter its fun take on branding — a man- sized fish tank in the shape of the store’s logo, complete with aqua-books — it is clear that Skoobs presents a radical departure from the old- fashioned bookshop concept.

"We wanted to create a virtual experience. So many bookstores lack imagination. The excitement of all the books is there," says manager Marcia Love. "You can feel the vibrations under your feet. You just can’t find the door to the party. With Skoobs we wanted to change all that."

Love knows what she’s talking about. Well-read, articulate and armed with a steely stare, this is no title- trading tannie; far from it. She’s a formidable force, a fountainhead of experience going back to 1979, when she entered the book business.

Books have always been her business. Following her studies at Rhodes University, mastering in English literature and classical civilisation, she started selling everything from potboilers to highbrow classics on behalf of burgeoning bookstores. Name a franchise and she has flogged for it, "from Bryanston to Jeppestown".

Enamoured of books since her first page-turning experience growing up in Ireland, Love "used to read two to three books a week" but since Montecasino’s management roped her in to head up Skoobs, she’s been "too busy to curl up with a book".

The concept is the brainchild of Marissa Torrani, project manager at Cinevation, the marketing company that Montecasino owners Tsogo Sun approached when they wanted to swop exclusive dreariness with exotic liveliness. Not wishing to speak disparagingly of the previous group she worked for, Love still doesn’t mince words when reflecting on how books used to be sold at Montecasino — "across the aisle from a little kiosk with portable lights and heaving trestle tables".

With Skoobs, the casino and entertainment complex’s literary side hasn’t just turned a page, it’s tossed the typewriter out with a clattering crash. It’s a case of out with the old, in with the new, and then some.
When Exclusive Books shut up shop at Montecasino last year, it seemed to confirm fears that all was not well at the complex and that, worse still, there’s truth in the rumour that gamblers are philistines. Not the case, apparently.

"People will always read," says Skoobs deputy manager Kgomotso Mokgatlha. "And despite new technologies like Kindles, they will always buy the real thing. It wouldn’t be the same falling asleep with an iPad on your face."

"We just needed to do things differently, turn things on their head, make people feel more welcome," adds Love.

With 1200m² of space, Skoobs is a tantalising theatre of the mind where anyone and everyone can have their whimsy catered for. What’s more, the service is super.

Upstairs in the gaming chamber, manager Anthony Lombard, neon vorpal sword batons in hand, throws a punch before he takes a break from his virtual battle dance. "Got any games for Mac?" I asked.
"No dude, but all you have to do is change your operating platform to Windows man, which you can on Mac, and there you go."

The coolness of Skoobs doesn’t end at the gaming section. There’s a Zen garden with a hanging-chair by the spiritual books section; a putting green by the sports section; and a candy-coloured kiddies garden, where story time is a regular thing, that spills over into a "darker" teen section filled with vampire fiction, manga and graphic novels.

"There used to be a perception that manga and graphics don’t sell. It’s wrong. We’ve brought these in and they’re selling," says Love.

What about audiobooks? "We’re bringing them in as well, because they’re high-theft items, and because it’s felt that only grannies are into audiobooks, many stores don’t stock them. But things have changed. Reps are cottoning on to audiobooks."

Skoobs has even gone one up on the rage of blending coffee shops with bookstores: it serves Starbucks coffee! But if it’s a stronger fix you want, you’ll find it upstairs. Here, at the stylishly furnished Champagne bar, during regular book signings you can chew the fat with the likes of rugby broadcaster Darren Scott. (Scott is the subject of a book called No Fries on Us, supervised by weight loss and wellness expert Lisa Raleigh and authored by Dan Nicholl.)

Recently, Skoobs hosted a book signing of The Extraordinary Book of South African Cricket by radio presenter David O’Sullivan and sports columnist Kevin McCullum — but let’s not talk about cricket right now.
On the heavier side, you can expect to run into local wordsmiths. A certain reclusive Nobel laureate, perhaps? Rather expect the likes of Spud creator John van de Ruit. Or itinerant scribes, such as participants in the recent sci-fi word-fest, Megalithomania, such as Fingerprints of the Gods author Graham Hancock.
"We want to bring readers and writers together," says Love. And make them interact with one another over a tipple or two. How else can you make sense of the printed ramblings of some people? In vino veritas, right?

And if you get too legless to make your way downstairs, there’s a lift with a quote on the floor: "Americans have different ways of saying things. They say ‘elevator’; we say ‘lift’. They say ‘president’; we say ‘sycophantic git’... Call it what you like, it’s easier than stairs."

Such is the stuff this store is made of.

Revealing too much would amount to robbing Skoobs of some of its mystery. Rather see for yourself: book browsing has never been such a blast.

Despite Kindles, they will always buy the real thing. It wouldn’t be the same falling asleep with an iPad on your face.

Picture and story by Eugene Goddard.
Source: Business Day