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RIBA plans to close regional bookshops

Architects have hit out at ‘absurd’ plans from the RIBA to close regional bookshops in three cities just a month after opening a third store in London

It emerged this week that the institute’s retail operations in Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester could vanish following a review into ‘commercial viability’ by bookshop owner RIBA Enterprises.

Former RIBA president Owen Luder slammed the move and said the institute had failed in its responsibility to regional members. He said: ‘One has to accept that the RIBA is not just a business, it’s a membership organisation.

‘Those regional bookshops provided a service in the regions and spread the name of the RIBA far and wide.’

In January the RIBA bought a new bookshop at the Building Centre in central London, establishing its third outlet in the capital, joining stores at Portland Place and Chelsea Harbour. A relaunch party will celebrate the acquisition later this month.

Steve Vant, director of Liverpool-based Union North said: ‘A lot of people depend on the Liverpool bookshop and its closure would be a terrific loss.’

Vant described the plans as ‘London-centric’.

A disappointed Robert Macdonald, emeritus president of the Liverpool Architectural Society, said closure of the bookshop contributed to his recent decision to give up his RIBA membership.

He said: ‘A good bookshop and gallery is more than just a bookshop, it is important from an educational perspective [too]…and as a local base.

‘I no longer find the RIBA value for money.’

A spokesperson for the RIBA said ‘physical bookshops’ were no longer the ‘first choice’ for architects seeking institutional support but confirmed that a decision on closure was yet to be taken. They added: ‘Unlike the buying trends affecting some of our regional bookshops, trading in our London bookshops remains strong.’

Ian Saunders, partner at Birmingham-based D5 Architects, explained: ‘There will be those among us provincial types who see this as a further retraction from the regions but it is probably more symptomatic of book retailing.’

Stephen Hodder, chairman of Hodder + Partners, and RIBA North West director Belinda Irlam-Mowbray have launched a campaign to save the Manchester bookshop, while plans for a RIBA HQ in Liverpool could incorporate a shop.

Ruth Reed, RIBA president explained: ‘This doesn’t mean we’re pulling out of the regions, it means we’re taking a 21st century view to how people want to use facilities.

‘People vote with their feet with bookshops [and] you can’t keep facilities because they’re a nice idea. We’re just changing the nature of what we provide.’

Proposals for internet cafes, events or exhibition spaces to replace the bookshops are on the table, claimed Reed.

Steven Cross, director of RIBA Bookshops & Publishing, added: ‘The growing trend for customers is to buy online. [However] opening a shop at the building centre makes perfect sense from a business point of view.’

The Manchester and Birmingham bookshops had both witnessed declining sales, claimed Cross. Workers at the Birmingham and Liverpool stores were ‘realigned’ to other posts while staff in Manchester accepted voluntary redundancy.

Cross confirmed that all three bookshops will cease trading on 21 April.

Readers' comments (1)

  • FLOW

    I don't think this is about the books. Everyone's known for years that physical bookshops are no longer 'commercially viable'. But the RIBA bases are more than just shops, and serve important roles that must be retained.

    Many intelligent people enjoy browsing the books in the RIBA bookshop. Of course the most intelligent will then go home and order them on Amazon for half the price. It's common sense, and it's been happening since the internet became mainstream in the late 90's. The provincial bookshops must've been making a loss for years. Hardly a 'current trend'.

    I've always assumed that the RIBA knew this already, and were aware that the bookshops are non-profit-making, but provide an important service. The fact that most of their books retail boldly at list price surely implies that they aren't intending to be a serious competitive business.

    The only people who still spend money in the RIBA bookshop are probably old-school wealthy 'Gentlemen Architects', walking around West London with nothing better to do after visiting one of their wealthy private clients. After hand-delivering some hand-drawn plans to their Clerk of Works at a listed Belgravia mansion, they call past Portland Place or Chelsea Harbour, and buy a few Adam biographies for £70 a go. If they actually owned a computer they might too discover Amazon.

    But the point is that the bookshops' obvious key role is not purely as a shop, but as an important physical base. The Tea Factory in Liverpool is especially successful, representing Architects at the heart of the city's creative quarter, and hosting many interesting events and exhibitions. Acting as a visible presence for our profession on the high street, members of the public can drop by to ask questions / find out more about what we do. This is even more important in less affluent towns, in order to 'take architecture to the people' and prevent the profession from becoming the London-centric preserve of the rich, in those Belgravia mansions.

    It is currently fashionable for architects to champion the benefits of physical place-making, and theorise about how architecture facilitates social inclusion and interaction - bandwagons the RIBA has firmly jumped on. For them to then close these facilities is both ironic and absurd.

    Many art galleries similarly make great meeting points on the high street, but they don't necessarily rely on selling stuff to balance the books. Often they have a membership that generates the necessary revenue (like RIBA?). They still have a bookshop, as an important cultural and social facility. So yes lets have an internet cafe or exhibition space – but please keep the token bookshop, and definitely don't close the facility.

    If the bookshops in Central London are making a profit, then perhaps they should add this to the revenue generated from the hefty RIBA membership fee, and use it to subsidise the provincial bases. What else do members have to show for their £370 a year? No wonder many are leaving. It's critical that the RIBA maintains a visible "shop window" on high streets around the country. Yes the RIBA bookshop is a 'nice idea' and it's an important idea that is worth keeping. Losing them will drive many more members away, and only contribute to the demise of the RIBA and the demise of what's left of the architect's professional standing in the eyes of the public.

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