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Wither Physical Space? A Bookstore Mystery

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Cafe-Librería El PénduloThis past week there were a number of articles that addressed the fate of bookstores, mainly announcing their impending demise. While this is nothing new—the topic has become a perennial favorite in the publishing industry now that the Digital Age is in full-scale disruption mode—this latest round struck a chord with me. As someone who spends many of her non-work hours in these shops—browsing, buying, going to readings—I give a lot of thought to the future of the bookstore.

I work for a publishing house, as do many of my friends; many of my other friends are booksellers and still others are authors. Admittedly, I have a stake in the bookstore’s survival beyond mere personal enjoyment.

I’m also aware that by living in New York City, a place teeming with bookstores, I am spoiled and possibly have a skewed view of their place in society. Nearly every one of these stores hosts an author event most nights of the week, giving me and the local community a reason to show up other than to buy a new book. They are a place to congregate, to catch up with friends, and occasionally meet new ones. They’re where you meet your favorite author and listen to poignant conversations among writers.

So, while I praise bookstores for doubling as neighborhood spaces and expound on how wonderful it is to have access to tens of thousands of square feet of books within a 10-mile radius, it would be narrow-minded of me not to acknowledge that there are people outside of my urban area who might not have one bookstore within driving distance. For that reason—among others—I am grateful for online retailers and ebooks.

Many detractors of bookstores often cite the seemingly infinite selection of and ease with which they can buy both print and digital books online as the main reason why bookstores are bound to go belly up. The first article I read was a recent post from Seth Godin. I’m a huge fan of Seth’s and always take what he says seriously, even if it sometimes makes me uneasy, like “The End of Books” did.

The death of the bookstore is being caused by the migration to ebooks (it won’t take all books to become ‘e’, just enough to tip the scale) as well as the superior alternative of purchase and selection of books online. If the function of a bookstore is to stock every book and sell it to you quickly and cheaply, the store has failed.

My argument is that the bookstore is not there to carry every book under the sun; they are there to curate a modest selection based on the demands of the community, the owner’s tastes (more so in independent bookstores than chains), possibly the staff’s tastes, and yes, based on the commercial success of a particular title at any given moment. Many stores, it should be noted, also sell ebooks through their websites and are happy to order a physical book that is not on their shelves.

In a recent episode of the Adventures with Words podcast, co-host Rob Chilver, a senior bookseller at a university branch of Waterstones, a British book retailer with nearly 300 stores in the UK and Europe, shared how he, as a book buyer for the store, decides which titles to stock.

When asked by people how he knows what books to buy he says, “It’s kind of a gut feeling. You get to know your shop. You get to know your customers. You get to know what people buy. … We occasionally get to see reps, these are reps from publishers. They walk you through the catalog, you can ask a few things.” He reads trade publications, pays attention to what’s getting covered in the media, and relies on an internal website where his coworkers discuss books they’ve read and what they’ve enjoyed.

Mike Shatzkin, a publishing theorist who specializes in digital changes in the industry, also discussed the future of the bookstore this past week in his post, “Losing bookstores is a much bigger problem for publishers than it is for readers.” He said:

The obsession with the false dichotomy between printed books and digital ones is beginning to give way to attention for the more important shift taking place between purchasing books online and purchasing books in stores.

… Online book buying — whether print or digital — takes business away from bookstores. So bookstores close or reduce shelf space. That decreases both their attraction and their convenience, which makes online buying increase even more. So bookstores close or reduce shelf space further. (This is called a “vicious cycle”.)

Shatzkin goes on to say that in this new world of online book discoverability—as opposed to the old way where people found books in stores—puts publishers on the defensive where they now have to explain how and why they’re still of value to authors. I can think of many: editors, publicists, sales reps, marketing and art departments, and distribution.

Shakespeare & CompanyHowever, the question of physical vs. digital availability is an important one. The future of the bookstore depends heavily on merging the physical showroom with digital technology. Interactive screens where stores maintain their curatorial nature—giving prominent visual space to select titles—but allowing an additional layer for increased selection is something I would like to see. With those screens would come a delivery service where those with ereaders could download books immediate, purchasing them from the store in which they stand. This latter part would be enforced either by blocking competitors’ sites within the store or by the honor code.

A recent episode of the Twist Image podcast addressed online shopping more broadly. Host Mitch Joel spoke with author and “retail futurist” Doug Stephens about the future of retail in our digital world. Stephens explained the impact of pervasive technology on consumer behavior and, in turn, on retail space. Because people can find what they want online he asks what the role of a physical store is now: “Is the job of a retail store still to distribute products? Or is it about distributing brand impressions? Is it about distributing relationships or connections?”

Just this past weekend, The New York Times took a look at the other side of retail development. Technology reporter Jenna Wortham explored in her article “Hanging Out at the E-Mall” one challenge facing online sellers: how to create a social experience.

The Web has yet to duplicate the real-world feel of a mall, where shoppers can pop in and out of multiple stores, easily browsing racks of clothing, display cases of jewelry and shelves of housewares. And online, friends can’t join you in a dressing room to help you avoid buying fashion faux pas.

Jenna highlights the problem of online discoverability and shows how a new crop of entrepreneurs are attempting to remedy it:

as more companies and shops migrated to the Web, it became harder to find cool, stylish and quirky items, giving entrepreneurs an opening. … The [new] shopping sites do not sell one type of item or good — instead, they mimic a bazaar where people can browse through bins at their leisure. … In addition, most social shopping sites let their users find and follow their friends and favorite brands or shops, which creates a feed akin to those on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. The feed is filled with new items that they might like to buy.

It’s often said that with disruption comes innovation. Do I think bookstores need to get creative if they’re going to survive, let alone thrive, as we become increasingly digitized? Absolutely. Are they doomed? I’m not ready to concede that just yet. I like to believe I live in a world that values in-person interaction and that readers, although a group known for its introversion, sees the benefit in moving these spaces into the future.

**Disclaimer: I work in publishing but am not a spokesperson for my company.

Written by Gabrielle

August 20, 2013 at 6:51 am

8 Responses

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  1. Excellent. Will share on my fb page! Have a great day LB.

    Sent from my iPad


    August 20, 2013 at 9:42 am

  2. I’m one of those people who lives 40+ miles from the nearest bookstore…. and they are limited stores at that! I would have appreciated the “curated experience” that When I Blink mentions above. As is, most my books are bought on line. I’m not drawn to digital books; I must have paper, smell the ink, run my fingers over the words when I turn the page. We’re making a big change… moving to Seattle. I CANNOT WAIT to experience stacks and stacks of heaven again! Thank you for your blog!


    August 20, 2013 at 10:13 am

  3. Reblogged this on To Be Honest….


    August 20, 2013 at 10:40 am

  4. […] Wither Physical Space? A Bookstore Mystery. […]

  5. I recently read a horrible expose of the quality of life for the workers at fulfillment centers – a future where we all work packing/shipping things ordered off the internet into each other’s homes is so bleak. It is so hard for me to buy books at full price at the bookstore, even though I know the cheaper Amazon price comes at a cost. I love wandering bookstores and don’t want them to disappear but I don’t see how they can compete with a company that refuses to pay state taxes and hires temporary workers to keep costs low. It is a sad dilemma.


    August 20, 2013 at 2:17 pm

  6. I agree with your point about bookstores being there to provide a modest selection, and that that selection is based on an amalgam of influences. I also agree with Shatzkin’s idea that the debate over eBooks and physical books is a false dichotomy, though this could prove to be provisional, if we’re to take what’s happened to Encyclopaedia Britannica as an example of where the market could lead things.
    What books in general might offer that Britannica couldn’t is a range of physical experiences. There’s the obvious things such as coffee and meeting people. But additionally, the ‘neighbourhood spaces’ aspect that you mention is one that’s relative to other neighbourhood spaces. What I suspect will determine the form that bookshops take in the future is how their owners and managers define the identities of their stores. Those who don’t find a niche could find trouble. It’s going to get harder and harder to compete through broad appeal when eBooks and online can undercut so easily. And rural bookshops will have the greater challenge in this.
    The points you make about distribution should be set in context with the experiences that go with how that distribution occurs. Physical stores offer surroundings and a buying context that are an important part of the purchasing experience. They’re also very different to the online experience. Merging the showroom with technology may be just change among many.
    Thanks for this post. Such a wide-ranging topic that’s well expanded on.


    August 20, 2013 at 4:41 pm

  7. Your argument is an interesting one and the post thought provoking! The idea of creating the social experience explored by Jenna Wortham is an interesting one to me. If you look at the general public, outside of the literary world, the ultimate judges of the fate of books, they seem to like bookstores more than books. The smell of the bookstores, the gazing at the titles and thinking about what books to read next, is more common, in my observation, than the act of reading. This is unfortunate and admittedly bleak but my hope is that simply the desire of the public to enter bookstores (and leave buying a book) will help the preserve their existence.

    Anyway, I agree with LB – so happy I came across your blog and am following it!


    August 22, 2013 at 1:05 pm

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