The Future of Bookstores

I’m hesitant to admit this, but I’ll just say it: Until recently, it had been a long time since I had been in a bookstore.

There are two reasons for this, and they both rhyme with blamazon.com:

  1. I do all of my book shopping on Amazon.com
  2. If I really want a book NOW, I buy it for my Kindle…on Amazon.com

So it had been a while. In the meantime, the publishing landscape had been vastly changing. Bookstores were going out of business and declaring bankruptcy. Ebooks are rapidly gaining market share thanks to the Kindle, the Nook, and the iPad. People’s attention spans are getting shorter. Publishers are cutting their marketing budgets.

So when I walked into a college-town bookstore last month, I expected to find all the things that Amazon.com can’t offer: A friendly staff with a vast knowledge of books and extensive recommendations. A comfortable reading area–rather, a bookstore experience, something more than just books on shelves.

And yet that’s what I found. Books on shelves and a staff preoccupied with putting more books on the shelves. At least they had a cat.

My experience at Left Bank Books last week was vastly different. The staff was knowledgeable and helpful, and they were consummate hosts for our book signing (video here) even though we had too many people for that space. The space itself was spacious and well lit–it felt like a big downtown loft filled with books.

And yet I wonder if bookstores need to continue to evolve to adapt to Amazon.com and ebooks. My hypothesis (heavily influenced by roommate Jess) is that bookstores should become the best possible place to read. I say that because fairly soon–if not already–bookstores will no longer be the best places to buy books. You could even argue that the online book browsing experience is better because you have Amazon’s massive brain pointing you in the right direction every step of the way.

So in a world where people can buy books with two clicks on their mobile readers, bookstores need to become the best possible place to read books. And sure, they should still sell books too. There will always be a market for paper books (cue comment from someone saying they’d never read an ebook). But I think bookstores will make just as much money by selling things that accent the reading experience they create in their store. Coffee, hot cocoa, martinis for reading chick lit. Finger food so you can hold a book in one hand and eat with the other. Comfort food and food you’ll indulge in while immersed in a great book.

To round out that reading experience, bookstores need to offer reading spaces you can’t get at home. Here are some of my ideas (and several of Jess’s) for unique reading spaces. Feel free to add yours in the comments.

  • Padded, claw-footed bathtubs
  • Cushioned fireplaces–not for making fire, but for reading
  • Window alcove
  • Tree fort
  • Fancy canopy bed
  • Castle spire for reading Harry Potter
  • Those ladders that roll along the edge of the bookcase
  • Bean bag chairs
  • Hammocks
  • Blanket forts
  • Rocking chairs

Last, bookstores are great places to foster writers. Surround a writer with books and he’ll either create something or be utterly distracted. The bookstore can foster both of those compulsions.

What do you think? In our lifetimes we’ve already seen bookstores go from tiny ma-and-pa places to Books-a-Million mega warehouses to cozy big-box bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble. What will they look like in 10 years?

19 thoughts on “The Future of Bookstores”

  1. You show me a bookstore with a hammock inside of a blanket fort and I’ll show you a lifelong customer who spends an obscene amount of time in one place.

    Reply
  2. Say what you want about Amazon’s suggestions to pinpoint another book that I might like. Sure, I might click a link to read the synopsis and customer reviews of a book because “13% of the people that bought the book I’m reading also bought this”, but I’d much rather roam the aisles of a brick-and-mortar bookstore, my fingers dancing upon the spines of novels, daring me to try something new and unexpected, waiting for just the right book to catch my eye and beg for a second look.

    But I also agree that I’m not really getting the bookstore experience that I want. I want to be able to grab a few books and curl up in a big armchair while I scan them to see if they grab my interest. However, at most of the bookstores I’ve been to in the past few years, seating space seems to be at a premium, and those limited cushiony havens are always taken by other people when I want them. And quite frankly, some of them aren’t even cushiony havens. They look more like upscale lawn chairs.

    I worked at a Barnes and Noble-type store when I was in college, and not only do I feel like we did a much better job at creating an atmosphere that was conducive to the book-buying and reading experience, but I also feel like it shows a big difference in how things have changed in the last 10 years. We brewed several different types of (free) coffee and always kept the coffee bar stocked with creamers, sweeteners, stirrers and other accouterments. The coffee bar was located in the center of the book section with several of the aforementioned large leather armchairs, inviting you to sit and stay awhile, and these chairs were also sprinkled throughout the entire book section so you could plop down wherever the mood struck. We were a small enough store that the furthest employee was never more than 2 or 3 aisles away if you needed help finding something or wanted a recommendation, which were copious among the staff. The (also free) popcorn wafting over from the movie section of the store helped the customers feel even more at home and was useful to curb any hunger pangs that might strike in the middle of a book browsing session. In high school, this place helped to restore the passion for reading that I lost during my early adolescence, and I loved working there in college.

    While this nostalgia is great, I almost feel like the time for this type of bookstore has come and gone. I’ve had a Kindle for about 2 months now, and I love it, but I can see how it’s destroying the desire I have to make that trip to the bookstore. I wonder if Barnes and Noble has some kind of kiosk in their stores to download a book to your Nook right away for those of us that like perusing through a bookstore to find a book, but prefer to read that book on an e-reader. If not, they should. I could see more stores implementing this for e-readers that don’t have licensing issues. I also see that type of technology pervading bookstores and making the experience more interactive. For instance, they could show employee recommendations on a touch screen and you choose to “like” that pick if they have read it before and enjoyed it, a la Facebook. Quite frankly, I’m also surprised that more books don’t have trailers like movies do. I’ve heard of some new releases making a trailer for their books, but I’ve never actually seen one. It could be distracting if it was too big or loud, but I think having a large TV screen playing a variety of book trailers when you first walk in a bookstore would be pretty cool.

    One reason that I will definitely continue to go to bookstores no matter how addicted I am to my Kindle is because of my daughter, Charlotte. I have seen some pretty amazing kids book sections at certain stores, and I have no doubt that it really helps to get her excited about reading in a way that you just can’t duplicate with an e-reader. Downloading a book just isn’t a much fun as walking into that majestic kids book section filled with stuffed animals and little tables and chairs, and choosing a book from the shelf with one of your favorite characters in it all by yourself. Nothing can beat that. So even if I find the book section for grown ups lacking in certain aspects, you’ll still find my car in the parking lot at any number of bookstores so I can foster that same love I have for reading in my daughter. Which is far more important to me than a comfortable armchair.

    Reply
    • Great blog entry, Katie. 🙂

      1. Recommendation: I agree, the experience of discovery is always going to be better at a bookstore (or a library, even). And Amazon can be way off in their recommendations. But at least Amazon tells me something every time I got there. If bookstores are to compete, there needs to be a level of human interaction with which Amazon can’t compete.

      2. I find it so interesting that your bookstore used to give away all those treats. I vaguely remember those days, but it’s such a foreign concept now.

      3. I thought about something similar to your book kiosk idea while I was writing the blog entry. Two ideas, really: One, let bookstores buy digital copies of books and sell those copies in their stores after you browse the hard copies of the book (so the hard copies would be display models). Two, have an app on the back of all books that lets you buy the digital version of the book. The app would be geolocated, so it would know that you just bought the book after browsing in that particular bookstore, and the bookstore would get a percentage of the profits.

      4. I really like your “Like” idea and the book trailer idea. BIG like to both of those.

      5. I think the concept I describe would be pretty awesome for kids. In fact, the photo in the post is my roommate in an elementary school library. Would a kid rather read on the sofa at home or in Winnie the Pooh’s house, recreated in a bookstore? You tell me. 🙂

      Reply
    • Dear Katie,

      I would like to apply for the position of your best friend. You probably already have the position filled, but I would like you to consider my application for the following reasons:

      1) I am extraordinarily loud, so if you have any plans to go deaf, you will never have a problem hearing your best friend.

      2) I am an actor, so if you you’re getting bored with your loud, american best friend, I am prepared to morph into your quiet, sophisticated, french mon amie.

      3) I hate my kindle, and if you accept me as you best friend, I will give you mine as a back-up! You in turn could tell me where I can get all this free popcorn and coffee (Jamey will attest to the fact that those items make up 53% of my diet)

      Sincerely,
      Jess

      PS- Please tell me Charlotte has read A Little Princess!

      Reply
      • Dear Roommate—

        Although the position of best friend has been filled for quite some time (ironically by someone also named Jess), I do in fact have a vacancy for the “other best friend” position. This role has the potential of being promoted to the best friend role with some hard work and dedication, as the first Jess lives several states away and is about to have a baby, which typically makes one sever communications with the outside world or speak of nothing but said baby for the next 25 years, even after baby starts shaving and goes away to college. Your application has been received and is being considered. 🙂

        1. I have been known, much to the dismay of others, to watch TV and movies with the closed captioning on. Whether this signals early hearing loss or just mere eccentricity has yet to be determined.

        2. My childhood dream was to be an actress, so I could live out my unfulfilled fantasies through you, have someone to attend plays with, watch the Oscars with, and discuss how Hailee Steinfeld totally should have been cast as Katniss in The Hunger Games movie instead of Jennifer Lawrence.

        3. Don’t tease me with the promise of a back-up Kindle. It would be like finding out Santa isn’t real all over again if I didn’t get it. And unfortunately, this utopia of free coffee, popcorn and book recommendations is about 3 hours away. I haven’t been in there in years, but I also have the feeling that if I made a trip back, I’d find that the coffee has long since vanished along with the popcorn, and that they now play Ke$ha over the loudspeakers non-stop while eagerly promoting Snooki’s new book. The young staff full of intellectuals has probably been replaced by a young staff of underachievers who are only working there because they aren’t smart enough to get an internship somewhere else.

        Sincerely,
        Katie

        P.S.—Charlotte only turns 4 next month, so The Little Princess is not yet in our repertoire. But I will be sure to put it on the list! 🙂

        Reply
        • I don’t mean to butt into this lovely…(what’s the female version of a “bromance?)…but I just wanted to say that I totally agree about Hailee Steinfeld. Although I watched Winter’s Bone the other day, and Jennifer Lawrence sold me that she can pull it off (it didn’t hurt that she looked more beautiful at the Oscars than anyone before, ever).

          Reply
          • I agree that I think she could pull it off, but I just think Hailee would be better. I feel like she has more of the physical attributes that I envisioned Katniss having, and she was amazing in True Grit. Plus, Jennifer Lawrence just seems too old, blonde and at times, glamourous, though definitely not in Winter’s Bone.

            By the way, did you enjoy it?

            Reply
            • Yeah, in Winter’s Bone she’s neither blonde nor glamorous. I thought she looked the part of Katniss in that movie, and she conveyed a sense of inner strength and fragility, also similar to Katniss. I think she’ll be quite good. I think producers may have underestimated Hailee’s beauty (because Katniss does end up being quite pretty in the right dress). I think Hailee will grow up to be really pretty. Lawrence is probably a little TOO pretty, but I think the major downside of her is that by the time they finish filming the third film, she’ll be close to 30 years old. That’s too old to play a 17 year old.

              I did enjoy Winter’s Bone. Well written, filmed, and acted. I wouldn’t necessarily watch it again, as it’s not at all uplifting, but it’s very good.

              Reply
  3. I agree, Jamey. I think bookstores – and really, any type of store – is going to have to really step it up. Everything is available online. If you play your cards right, you never have to leave your house. I think smaller bookstores, with cozy places to read or write and coffee shops, are definitely the future.

    Reply
    • I agree that smaller is better, unless you need a bigger space to create the types of reading experiences that I’m talking about here. However, creating and maintaining a bigger space is often more costly.

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  4. I point you to http://www.shakespeareandcompany.com/ one of my favorite (despite its demise into tourist-trap-dom) bookstores in the world. You are correct that bookstores need to be spaces rather than stores. However, the reason coffee shops do better than book stores – economically speaking – is because patrons don’t sit and hold a cup of coffee for a few hours and then put it back on the shelf. When I was in highschool I used to treat bookstores like libraries that you couldn’t take the books outside of (or sometimes you could, thank you return policy).
    Further, I would like to echo Jamey’s subtle concern that the downfall of bookstores – and perhaps the book industry overall – is a problem we should be concerned about. Yes amazon.com is there when I know the title or topic that I want, but without bookstores we will read less. We will be exposed to new ideas less. We will be less capable of decent conversation. It will be apocalyptic.

    Reply
    • That’s a good point about bookstores being treated as libraries–that’s probably where the idea of putting coffee shops in bookstores came from. At the same time, by letting you read a few chapters of a book, the bookstores hopes that you get so carried away that you simply *have* to buy it when you leave so you can keep reading it.

      I keep thinking that maybe the solution is to create a truly unique reading experience and charge people entry, but I’m not sure people would pay for that. So I think the food is where the profit is. It’s like movie theaters–they don’t make money off the movies themselves because they’re just recouping the cost of the film. The money is made on popcorn and soda. Which is why it’s despicable to me when a movie theater is lazy about making good popcorn.

      Reply
  5. Well done on the videos, Jamey! They were better than I expected. The book cover hanging with the Left Bank Books banner, the intro music, the picture slide show with audio, and then the actual video of the event. Really nicely done. I’m impressed. Gold star for you, your authors, and your publishing company.

    Reply
    • Thanks! One of our authors runs a video production company, so she knows how to make the videos look really great. Thanks for watching!

      Reply

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