Shifts in consumer shopping habits are killing the traditional high street. Could libraries breathe life back into it?

Here in the UK, the news has been filled with retail brands going into administration, and the resulting empty shops on the high street. With others limping along with seemingly permanent sales, it’s likely we will see more shops shuttered.

Local bookstores are in trouble. Not because they don’t work hard or care a lot but because they are saddled with expenses that used to be smart (rent for a local storefront) in a world where they are now merely ballast – Seth Godin

The reality today is that some retail businesses are no longer viable on the high street. Instead of hoping that old style retail will return, perhaps it’s time to re-think the entire design of the high street.

There are some connecting trends that the high street could help with:

  • Increasing numbers of freelancers and remote workers
  • Disruptive weather patterns make being able to walk to work more attractive
  • For all the connectedness of the Internet, reports that loneliness is increasing
  • Libraries becoming somewhat redundant as fewer people rent books to read

We are, mostly, social animals and want to be near others at least some of the time. The high street can be vital for those connections. Why not completely rethink the purpose of the local library? Make it not just about reading and renting books by the young and old, but a virtual office space that people can rent by the hour, half-day or day. I travel about through my work and rely on coffee shops as a place to catch-up in between client meetings. But they are noisy and unsuitable for taking phone calls or holding virtual meetings.

Imagine knowing that every town already large enough to warrant a library had one that included hot-desking facilities, meeting and video conferencing rooms available to book, and high-speed broadband. I would certainly make use of such facilities regularly in my nearest town, because the home office can sometimes feel isolating.

The role of government is to provide services that are not commercially viable, funding them through taxation. Well invest in the libraries. Move them back in to central locations on the high street. Make them the central point for finding out what’s going on in the area. Offer incentives to businesses to rent out portions of the space on a monthly basis to help with costs. But encourage freelancers and very small businesses to rent by whatever means works – hourly, daily, monthly whatever.  The increased footfall will need feeding at lunchtime and still want to have those meetings over coffee. And, possibly, even find time for some shopping and socialising after hours. A new initiative to convert offices into residential accommodation in towns should increase the number of people living within walking distance of such facilities, further increasing demand for all the supporting services.  And perhaps have more sensible opening times for shops – say 11am to 8pm. (I confess, stole that idea from the US where it already happens) Make it easier for people to shop after work, and why have deserted shops open in the morning?

Re-imagine the high street as a place where people live, work and socialise, and give the libraries a pivotal role in helping make that happen.

That’s my Friday thought.

Image: VisitLincoln

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