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Magnificent Computing Sections – Foyles, Charing Cross Road, London

2010 May 24
by Caitlin

The flagship branch of Foyles on Charing Cross Road in London is a fantastic shop with a magnificent computing section. It is arguably the biggest section in the UK, maybe in all of Europe, possibly in the World, W & G Foyle Ltd
113-119 Charing Cross Road
Fax: 020 7434 1580
with the equivalent of 70+ full-size bays, plus additional promotions, spinners etc – and that doesn’t include digital audio, digital photography, digital filmmaking etc, which are housed in the neighbouring Technical section. With good coffee in the connecting coffee shop, (past the lifts and around the corner), Foyles Computing Section is well worth a visit if you’re in the centre of London.

A section that size needs a committed and knowledgeable crew to keep it in check, and Foyles have had a succession of dedicated staff who have incrementally improved the section over the years.

Ten years ago, when I started to call there, the section was an overloaded, over-stocked mess with no inventory to speak of. The shop never did returns, and like a hoarder who won’t chuck their unwanted trinkets, the floor was a ghastly hell-hole wherein all the good stuff was buried beneath the bad.

Foyles Bookshop - Charing Cross Road, London

image: Wikimedia - Tarquin Binary - License

Then came the renaissance. The first person to really grab the section by the scruff of the neck was Julie Rigby and her rigorous campaign of returns, clearing out the deadwood and in its place stocking the books that customers actually wanted. That in itself was a huge evolutionary leap. Then Oliver Feldman took Julie’s initiative and ran with it, managing the section with a flair and a sense of fun that made visiting a giddy experience. I can’t think of too many companies who would allow the slogan ‘Because it looks like Tony Blair on acid’ to win a competition, (the question was ‘Which is your favourite O’Reilly animal and why?’ The winner nominated the tarsier). On Oliver’s staff he had Alex Harling, a Java and Linux geek who could go toe-to-toe with any developer to venture onto the floor. Alex developed into a fine bookseller, with all the skills of the trade and deep, deep technical knowledge to go with it, and when Oliver moved on to run a literary magazine, and Julie was co-opted to do for the Children’s section what she’d done for Computing, Alex stepped up to run the section. And when Alex’s technical prowess meant Foyles management appropriated her to run the company’s IT department, Brian Clarke and David Whitehead each in turn showed they were equal to the task, bringing something of themselves to the job to build on the work of their predessessors. The department has gone from strength to strength, and it’s full marks to Foyles management for the astuteness of their recruiting.

And now we have Ian Veldhuizen and Stephen Forde running the section on a daily basis, stepping up like giants to grapple with the siesmic changes in the computing industry, while at the same time showing an attention to detail that would make a Swiss watchmaker jealous as they pick through the minutiae of computer book publishing. Stephen recently appeared on Makezine modelling the store’s bewilderingly good Make collection. And aiding them, Floor Manager Eoin O’Reilly (no relation) is like a flood barrier handling the tidal sweeps of bookshop politics.

Covering a third of the first floor the department’s stock ranges from books for the novice tackling their first laptop, through to graphic design students, computer scientists, programmers and IT professionals. Recent reallocation of floor space within Foyles has meant that the department now has a dedicated Microsoft Room that covers all the Microsoft applications, platforms and common languages, with sections for basic and advanced certiffication. But there’s plenty of Open Source in there, too.

Ian and Stephen answered a few questions about running the Section:

Why are bookshops still important in these days of online bookselling?
The popularity of online bookstores has effected the profitability of the highstreet bookshop, but people still enjoy being in a bookshop, and want to physically browse and compare books on a subject. The more technical the subject, the more customers want to compare and contrast not just the subject covered but how it is covered, something best done with book in hand.

The Computing section has a turnover of topics that say the History section will never have. Does it make it hard to keep up?
Picking up upon new trends has always been exciting. Usually customers ask for something on a subject you have never heard about and it’s always exciting to track down more information on these subjects.

How did Foyles computing sections blossom while other sections are falling away?
We have always tried to stay updated with the latest in the computing world. We try to stock as wide a range of titles as possible so that when customers come to us there is a very good chance that we will have at least one book on the subject they are looking for and if we don’t, we’ll try and find something and offer to get it in for them.
We also have quite a few regular customers and have attended a few events and exhibitions to get the word out to the computing community that we are the one-stop shop for all their books.

O’ReillyGMT adds: Foyles were lucky, in some ways. They started to revitalise their
section at the exact point that other shops were feeling the effects of the dotcom crash. While elsewhere sales were falling away, triggering budget cuts and shop real estate shrinkage, at Foyles a formerly under-performing department began to realise its potential, prompting further investment from the shop management. Their reward was to pick up market share as customers who couldn’t find their books elsewhere took their custom to Foyles.

Future plans for section?
Early next year there are plans to move the Computing department in with the Technical department. Hopefully this will give a better crossover between sections such as photography, engineering and so on. In the past we have also considered stocking software: this is still something we might look into.

oreillygmt's Foyles, London photoset oreillygmt’s Foyles, London photoset

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