Re-Imaging the Brick-And-Mortar Bookstore

I’m a big fan of brick-and-mortar bookstores. Living in Syracuse, I’m fortunate to have access to several, including a Barnes & Noble. The cafe there used to be my unofficial office because it provided a wonderful escape from the distractions of home. There was also something wonderful about heading down there, grabbing a cup of Starbucks coffee with a shot of hazelnut syrup, and reading or writing for hours.

I don’t rely on places like that quite as much now but I do still try to buy most of my books from the smaller shops (like either used book store on James St.). I’m old fashioned, in this sense, because I just never really warmed up to e-books, to say nothing of how I would much rather buy from a local store than Amazon. Naturally, I am intensely interested in finding a way to preserve the traditional bookstore. A world without them is something I would rather not think about.

There is one idea for saving these stores that has become trendy recently. The suggestion is stores like Barnes & Noble should start charging for browsing privileges.

Maybe it’s because I can’t get the image of a bouncer and a velvet rope in front of my local Barnes & Noble out of my head, but this idea just seems absurd.

Barring a complete overhaul of what the stores actually offered, I don’t see how this idea could work. Maybe if they became literary night clubs or something (the bouncer would make sense, at least) then it would work. They just wouldn’t really be bookstores anymore.

The plan I read about in Bloomberg the other day called for charging for memberships. Members would be allowed to sit in the store and enjoy perks like WiFi and snacks (which they would still have to buy). The stores would have only one copy of every book in stock because members would not actually be allowed to purchase them. They would only be able to look.

Bookstores would be like art museums, with WiFi.

It is an interesting idea but I think it would only hasten their death. The so-called “perks” described were identical to those offered by most coffee shops and I can’t see people paying to look at books they can’t actually take home. Casual shoppers would be driven off immediately and the die-hards would probably follow soon after.

The article claims that people still prefer to discover books in person, even if they are buying them online. But with myriad resources to find reviews online, not to mention the social-media aspect offered by sites like Goodreads, it’s easy to imagine people turning to the web even more to find their books, if the alternative is to start paying just to look at books in their local brick-and-mortar store.

Companies like Barnes & Noble will have to make some significant changes. That is obvious. Shunning the casual customer probably isn’t the way to go though.

A better idea might be to maintain the bookstore but scale it down and diversify what they offer their customers. Their tangible presence in communities means that they can offer many benefits that Amazon can’t. This is especially true in the case of Barnes & Noble, because their size gives them more ability to experiment.

They could tweak the membership idea, for example. Reserve one section of the store for members. They could pitch it as office space for freelancers, students, and writers. Or maybe they could create a lounge for those members. Either way, the membership idea could be put to use in a way that doesn’t shun everyone else.

They might also explore selling used books, to maintain a decent selection if they need to limit how many new books they stock.

Barnes & Noble also has a website that they can direct customers to, to purchase anything they weren’t able to find in the store. If they put more effort into becoming gathering places for events and projects, they might see more people turning to their website instead of Amazon’s. Stores could host obvious things like poetry readings, book clubs, or writer’s workshops, but they could also try wine tastings or poker tournaments. Anything to get people through the doors.

Brick-and-mortar stores occupy space in their communities. They can do whatever they want with that space. They’re only limited by the imaginations of their owners. If these stores do survive, it will probably because they found a way to cast a wider net, not a more narrow one.

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