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The Future of Brick and Mortar Bookstores

I read this really interesting article, by David Gaughran at the indie reader, on the digital wars between Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and why at least right now, Amazon is winning. But it got me thinking about something else.

I love brick and mortar bookstores, especially big ones. I love the ambiance. No where else can I find the pervasive new book smell that seems to flow through those big stores’ shelves.  However, if I dig deeper, I love this literary smell because I love books.  That smell speaks to me of things yet to come and adventures waiting to be grabbed. It is an embodiment of my feeling of enjoyment for new authors or ideas formerly unknown to me.

This is where the excitement of the big bookstore with its wonderful new book smell is letting me down recently.  When I visit my big local bookstores, they don’t carry the books I wanted to buy.   There is so much information on the internet it is really easy to find new books by your favorite author, or a new author that’s highly recommended by authors or readers you respect.  That’s where I get 99% of my book recommendations these days.  And my local book stores can’t deliver on those recommendations. Yes, they could order them in for me, but generally it takes longer and is more expensive than going online and doing it myself.   Also with gas prices soaring these days, I end up feeling guilty about spending the fuel to go all the way out to the bookstore for what turns out to be a completely worthless errand.

I may have impulse bought some other random title, but that doesn’t make me feel better.  It makes me feel worse.  This impulse book is usually far and away inferior from the book I actually wanted, and it’s not like I won’t still buy the book I was originally looking for.  This might make the publishers of the random book feel better, but it certainly doesn’t make me feel better.   I end up with the uncomfortable realization I could have stayed at home and gotten the book I wanted, saved the gas money, and saved the money on this other book I won’t even finish.  I don’t have time for reading mediocre books all the way to the end.   My high school and college self would have a crisis of ideals if she could hear me say that, but it’s true.

The money that stays in my pocket when I shop for books online is a very persuasive argument against physical bookstores for me.   I don’t have that much to begin with.  And so, those big physical book stores, with the ambiance and the new book smell I love, have come to represent wasted time and money to me.  I very rarely use them anymore.   And yet, I hate the idea that the physical bookstore is going the way of the dinosaur.  I would like to use them, but the outcome is plainly negative when I do.  I just can’t justify it.

I believe large bookstores and libraries are still what get the next generation into books, way before they start blazing their own trail in the wide world of books online.  Seeing all physical bookstores close down would be the equivalent of closing down a major gateway into cultural and intellectual thought.  So what would it take to win back customers to the big bookstores?

They logistically can’t compete with the number of books an online store can have at its beck and call.   They don’t have enough room.   And that is honestly my biggest complaint with them.  They require me to expend effort and cash just to get there, and then they never have what I need.

Going off of that, if local bookstores could implement a system allowing me to pick out my books online ahead of time, place my order, and then send me a time for pick up, they would go a long way toward getting me back as a customer.  Honestly, I know many book stores are not even close to being set up in a way to let their customers do that.  But why not?  It wouldn’t have to be that different from the online hold system implemented by many libraries.

One thing is clear though, physical bookstores will have to change to attract customers away from online stores somehow, if they want to stick around as viable and vibrant businesses in the future.