Why you should care
Because bookstores should be piazzas.
Booksellers had it easy before the internet, and now that paperbacks are going the way of newspapers and DVDs, the outlook’s getting grim. Borders went extinct years ago, and Barnes & Noble has suffered its hits over the years. Retailers will have to evolve fast, though efforts to add in-store coffee shops, e-readers, kids’ toys and craft brewery kits have had as much effect as throwing a pebble at an asteroid.
The problem is that bookstores are selling a physical product in an increasingly product-less world. Which is why brick-and-mortar shops should reinvent themselves as for-profit libraries. Imagine a literary hub where you could read books, meet for reading circles, participate in daily writing workshops and attend a frequent carousel of author signings. All for, say, $20 per month. In this fantasy, you could check out a single book at a time or even buy a physical copy just for kicks. Think of it as your intellectual gym membership.
Starved for face-to-face interaction … bookworms could find like-minded bibliophiles.
But wait, isn’t that basically a regular library? Sure, if homemade drip coffee is the same as Starbucks lattes. The difference is that for-profit libraries offer an experience that make them worth your hard-earned dough, says Ernie Smith, who writes the twice-weekly online newsletter Tedium: “Those walls are kind of its selling point: Buy a coffee, get lost inside a book, maybe take it home with you.” Bookstores would have to add comfier chairs, more communal spaces and expert staff who can make better recommendations than any algorithm. “Amazon can’t beat that experience, no matter how many Kindles it sells,” Smith says.
His suggestion builds on Florida urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s theory that people need “third places,” communal gathering spaces outside of home and work. “When we don’t have that, we hunker down and make every night a Netflix night,” Smith told OZY. In today’s tablet-dependent culture, pretty much any place that offers free Wi-Fi counts as a third place. Starved for face-to-face interaction and maybe not cut out for the bar scene, bookworms could find like-minded bibliophiles in spaces that cater to their uniquely literary social needs. As of now, Smith argues, bookstores seem more interested in getting customers out than keeping them in. “There’s no big-box go-and-hang place with a national scale that’s targeted at consumers, and I think if there was one, it’d look more like WeWork than Barnes & Noble,” he says.
Not everyone is buying our epiphany though. Publishers aren’t keen on a model that loans books out to the masses and cuts print runs drastically. Retailers would have to work out licensing agreements similar to the deals Netflix has with movie production companies. But subscription models tend to be going online rather than off it, with services like Early Bird Books, although most subscription models for e-books “haven’t worked too well,” says Lorraine Shanley, publisher of the industry newsletter PublishingTrends.
Then again, it’s not like the indies are facing an even playing field now. Many face the same dilemma as The Shop Around the Corner in Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail, a film starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan about a Manhattan bookstore that shuts down after a new entrant consumes the market (sound familiar?). Others are rebounding, at least in the short term, as ideal community bookstores mimicking the “piazza” Hanks describes so eloquently: “A place in the city where people can mingle and mix and be.”