The Future of Bookstores

So everyone’s crying about the demise of Borders, though it wasn’t that long ago we were all crying about how it and evil twin Barnes and Noble were driving  local independent bookstores out of business, even as we were shopping mostly at Amazon to get the books we found browsing at the physical bookstore at a better price (sinner, heal thyself). Like everyone else, I used to love going into the megastores, and maybe felt a little guilty about it, but not so much that I stopped doing it, because the small guys just didn’t have the inventory to browse through.  Which is also why I used to like going into Tower Records, too, but the same thing that’s happening to the music megastore (of which “Borders ‘n Noble” was once a subset) is catching up to the bookstore. You want to browse inventory, you go online, for both selection and prices. And you don’t have to get into the car and drive anywhere to do it.

On a personal level, the Borders closing doesn’t affect me. Here in Charlottesville, we have more used bookstores per square foot than coffee shops (and we've got a lot of coffee shops), along with long established local retailer of new books and, yes, a Barnes and Noble (though not a superstore, meaning little in the way of music or video, though that’s being downsized anyway).  And, truth, be told, it’s been a while since the Borders experience peaked; in an effort to become profitable, the chain started emphasizing mass merchandising over book selling, becoming more like a mall store than an intellectual haven, and there was nothing more idiotic than staff running around with those silly headsets to give the illusion of instant customer service.

The primary attraction of going into a Borders (and Tower and all the other megastores) was that feeling that you can get in your hands just about almost anything you wanted, no matter how esoteric, and that’s not quite the same thing as pressing “The Look Inside” link online. While as eReaders ultimately displace the physical book, that distinction may become less important, but whether chat rooms and customer reviews can replace the barista who can recite from Nietzche, Heinlein and Bob Dylan is another matter.

Nor is the experience disappearing entirely for bookstores (or record stores), but it’s going to be harder to find if you don’t live in Portland (Powell’s Books) or New York City (Strand, for example, which is cleverly offering a free gift at its store to anyone who comes in with a Borders Rewards card).  These bookstores continue to survive because, unlike Borders, they haven’t tried to replicate their physical presence across the country like the Borg while still expanding their online footprint. Moreover, their brand identity distinguishes themselves from Amazon as knowledgable curators of their product (as opposed to a legion of Harriet Klausners and algorithms that tell you what you like based on past purchases).  Therein may lie the future of the physical bookstore.

That and maybe Apple acquiring Barnes and Noble.

Okay, it’s highly unlikely.  But, think of the synergies. What can you find at an Apple Store that you can’t online? It’s the experience. A select range of products that exemplify “best in class” on display that you can hold in your hands, and, more importantly, a highly knowledgeable staff that is actually helpful, actually available and can actually answer your questions  and actually seems to be excited about the stuff they’re selling (and when was the last retail store you could say that about?). You can look at the same stuff online, you can search the forums for advice, you can order the product and get it delivered to your home.  And while you don’t take books into the shop to get the hard drive replaced, you will with your eReader (and, like it or not, we’re all eventually going to have one [btw: I don't yet]).  But the retail experience provides that personal touch, that physical interaction with an actual person,  you simply can’t get online. It's how these independent video stores are surviving Netflix. Please forgive a perhaps tasteless analogy, but it’s the difference between online porn and a strip club.  

And that’s the future of the bookstore. Borders and Barnes and Noble were able to beat out the independent bookstores because of breadth of selection and pricing. Once just about everyone could do that online, that was no longer a retail advantage.  The future of the bookstore is really what it was doing all along, and why some local independents managed  to stay in business even at the height of the “Borders n’ Noble” blitzkrieg: as curators of what was really good, not just on the best seller list, they offered services and expertise and, moreover, an experience that you couldn’t get anywhere else, and that was worth paying a little more for.  Maybe they don’t have the widest selection, but they have what is select. That, essentially, is the formula of the success of the Apple brand.

Borders is dead.  Long live the bookstore.

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