I think I’ve done as much damage there as I can. In looking at the origin of the Big Box Bookstore and then taking it to fairlyexotic places, I’d say my infatuation with the Box is done.
In future essays, I’d like to focus more on bookselling and less on 4-walls-and-a-cafe. The business of books has already moved forward a whole century in just the last 10 years, and we have even more growth and adaptation ahead of us.
All essays of course remain for you to re-read (or newly discover), indexed on my Bookselling Resources page [http://www.rocketbomber.com/bookselling] and the new set of long-form-thought-pieces will be added there as well. This isn’t so much an abandonment of principles as a change in focus and required mental readjustment.
“Mind the Gap: The Generation that Came of Age between 9 November 1989 and 11 September 2001. The Promise of Peace, Wealth, Cooperation, and Understanding that was Tossed Aside by Cold Warriors Desperate for a New War, the World the Old Generation Re-Made, and the Full Appreciation of What Our Nascent Global Community Lost in the Months Following 9-11.”
I don’t have time to write the book with that title now. But there was an excellent discussion at the bar this evening, when one patron came in having recently watched Argo, and attempted to explain/describe the historical setting to another patron whose father just so happened to emigrate from Iran to the United States in 1979. It was all friendly; we’re good souls down at the pub. But in attempting to integrate the feelings and opinions of my fellows at the bar, placing it in historical context, while simultaneously taking into full consideration how our perception of events in Iran in 1979-80 have been fully transformed by the recent shenanigans in Iraq and Afghanistan, it occurred to me that my own personal viewpoint was uniquely informed.
While I was in high school and at university, my worldview had to take in the end of the cold war and a cessation of hostilities: Peace — if not actual, than palpable and almost within out collective grasp.
I entered college with a sense of hope, an international mindset, an open mind and heart when it came to global entities, and a hunger to cash in on new global opportunities. We all learned a second language. The EU was proving that even Germany and France could get along in this new world, and the Russians were the biggest capitalists of them all. [Ayn Rand would have absolutely loved 21st century Russia]
And then some asshole had to go and ruin the new dream, before it could really gain traction. No, not the asshole you’re thinking of: one madman destroyed a couple of buildings in New York. A Crime, a Heinous Crime — and perhaps deserving of the end he met. No, instead that tragedy was used as an excuse to start a ill-conceived ‘war’ — a war, that as defined, will in fact be never-ending. Until all discontent on the planet is abolished, there will always be a “war on terror”, but every military effort taken to quell discontent only breeds more tragedy, more extremists, and more events like 9-11.
This is the perfect outcome for some: a war that cannot be ended with something as simple as the collapse of a superpower.
My Cohorts and I, who once glimpsed the promise of world peace, world cooperation, and global opportunity [capitalist opportunities!] in the 1990s will eventually grow and come to positions of power as older generations die off. I hope we will not be too jaded in our old age, or that we forget the promise of our youth (or willingly abandon it).
There was an asshole, backed by powerful corporate interests and at least one major political party, who took every positive thing that came with the end of the cold war, and wiped his ass with it
— to please his military-industrial base, to mask the continuing problems at home by getting everyone — domestic supporters and foreign allies alike — to “rally behind the flag” and basically making a shit-sandwich of world affairs and forcing everyone to take a big bite.
The Promise was squandered. Reagan railed in Berlin, “Tear Down This Wall!”
And I’m not just talking about the way most corporate overlords treat their part-time hourly employees.
Let’s say you’re the store manager: salaried, bonus-eligible, supposedly given a great deal of responsibility. It should be easy, right? Or at least easier than grinding out a minimum wage shift at a register, standing on your feet for hours and hours and asking the same stupid three questions of a constant parade of customers who don’t care, and often can’t be bothered to stop talking on the phone long enough to acknowledge you as an actual person.
“If Only I were the boss,” our hypothetical employee says to herself, “then we could actual change things in the store, respond to our customers, make this a decent place to work and shop”
Merely being the store manager is not being the boss. Corporate makes sure of that.
Corporate Question Number One: “So, what are you doing to increase sales?”
To respond to this question, a store manager is required to come up with some bullshit with the right-sounding phrases (whatever jargon is in vogue at corporate offices this year) and to come up with ‘action plans’ and ‘employee incentives’ and ‘store initiatives’ and all kinds of other crap that has the same net effect as shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic after the iceberg hits.
At the store level: we didn’t steer the ship into an iceberg. Expecting us to magically fix it at the store level is intentionally blind, callously negligent, or possibly both.
Retail locations are dependent on customer traffic. I can’t drive traffic into my store any more than I can make it rain. At the store level, the most I can do is keep the doors open, hire more staff to make the most of any traffic that does come in the door, train staff to be courteous and helpful and then also ensure we are scheduling enough people to work to keep up with sales volume.
Tired and harried staff can only do so much. Cutting back on payroll only limits your total potential sales. If you want to increase sales, let me add staff the store to increase employee interactions with customers. These conversations lead to a better understanding of what the customer needs, to personalized recommendations, and more sales.
Corporate Question Number Two: “Sales are down so we need to minimize our expenses; what are you doing to meet the new payroll target?”
I’m paraphrasing but this is fairly close to the actual weasel words used: They don’t tell me to fire people, or to cut a part-timer from 20hrs a week down to 12. They don’t tell me to make customers wait for 5 minutes instead of 2 minutes, or 10 minutes instead of 5. They don’t tell me to pull someone off of customer service for restocking or merchandising. They never ask me to pull the kids specialist out of her department to cover breaks at the register, leaving one of our stronger departments unstaffed for hours a day — when, once again, if there were an employee there to talk and listen to customers we just might see a sales bump that would justify adding one extra person to each shift.
“What are you doing to make your payroll number?” This thinking doesn’t even consider what the costs of cutting payroll are:
Sure, you save the $9.25 an hour you’d be paying someone — but your customers have to wait. Your employees are overworked, leading to more sick days, more grumbling, fewer smiles, and no matter how saint-like they are and how hard they try, will also lead to ever-so-slightly worse customer service.
Customers who have bad experiences or who just have to wait one extra minute also leave the store thinking to themselves, well, I’m never shopping there again.
Cutting back payroll means spending community goodwill. It’s not a savings, it’s a cost. And community goodwill is only earned slowly, over years. It’s not like you’re going to get it back even if corporate comes to its senses and lets store managers add staff.
Sales are down. You can sit in your executive suite, stare at spreadsheets, lean on your COO, who leans on a SVP, who leans on a junior VP, who leans on regional staff, who send out emails to all the store managers, “So, what *are* you doing to increase sales?”
It’s like asking farmers in a drought to make it rain.
Here’s what can be done: Advertise nationally to drive traffic into stores. Spend years building up a reputation for knowledgeable, helpful service, quality products, and prices that are in-line with the quality and service offered. [One does not have to be the cheapest to be well thought of by our customers; ask Apple.] Build the brand to drive traffic into stores, and then make sure there are enough positive employee-customer interactions to convert that traffic into sales.
My experience is in book sales; our chosen retail niche has a unique service component not shared with other retailers — but some of this has to be universal.
The one thing that could be addressed at a store level, increasing staff, I’m not allowed to do.
The one thing that would actually drive more traffic into stores, national and consistent advertising in major media, is deemed by corporate to be too expensive.
Ask Coke how much they spend on ads. Or Budweiser. Or McDonalds.
Until someone at our corporate offices catches a clue, I guess I’ll go back to shuffling deck chairs and ignoring the iceberg.
If you’re an entrepreneurial sort with a small stack of cash and are looking to open a small business: Start a restaurant. Train as a plumber. Get a lawnmower and start going door to door. There are a lot of options, but service, skilled trades, or food are the better bet — anything and I mean damn near anything but retail. You are competing not just with other shops but with gigantic multinational corporations that will always beat you on price. You can compete on quality or service (especially when it comes to food) but if you sell shirts or toasters? That’s hard.
If you just run the numbers, attempting to make money at retail is an awful, soul-crushing thing to even contemplate, let alone attempt. And if you want to sell books? Online retail is so efficient there’s no need or little want for a bookstore, or even a non-Amazon online store: One site to rule them all, one site to find them, one site to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
Why fight it?
Well, part of it is that I love bookstores. I love them so much, if I win the lottery I’m opening my own [& also working very hard to do so anyway even without a jackpot] and I don’t plan to retire at all, ever. When I leave this world, you’re going to have to carry my rapidly cooling corpse feet first out the door of a bookstore.
I love books and live a life filled with books. If the last remaining big-box chain bookstores went out of business I guess I’d content myself with whatever option was available — after all, I grew up with mall bookshops that rarely topped 2000sq.ft. I also used to bike to my local library as a kid and teen twice a week (at minimum) and pretty much started at one end of the first shelf on the first bookcase & read damn near everything.
Still, when the really big bookstores opened (in my neck of the woods it was 1993, while I was in my second year of college) it was a revelation. Marvellous temples built for books, and built even out in the suburbs – not just the city center.
I think many of us either weren’t old enough or have since forgotten what the bookselling landscape was like before Borders & B&N. Yes, there were many fine bookstores but nowhere near the selection — and I don’t think anyone sold a cup of coffee. [This was the topic & source of inspiration for my very first “Rethinking the Box” column]
In 1993 the first major chain big-box outposts were opening. In 1993, the internet was also born — exact date debatable but the first graphical browser was in 1993 and that’s where a large chunk of the whole mess we now call “the internet” started. It’s not even that I’m going to pull the tired “born with the seeds of its own distruction” cliché — odds are good you first learned HTML or Java or C from a book you purchased at a chain bookstore. “DOS for Dummies” came out in 1991 — no way in hell you bought that from Amazon. The big-box bookstore, with it’s large computer book section and consistent, relatively quick ordering procedures is no doubt the way the first of us became the net-literate, and it would take some very creative restructuring of facts and timelines to argue otherwise.
[Oh, I suppose you could have learned it in college instead of teaching yourself from books. I did. Or at least, that’s where I learned the basics, back in ’92: But your college had all online materials and no bookstore? Really?]
It was at least six years (1994-2000) before we began to pare back the number of computer books stocked in our bookstore, and even then, it was more a matter of purging old volumes (& whole categories) to keep up with the sheer numbers of new books and accelerating growth in tech topics. I think 2002 was when we finally pulled back, stocking mostly general knowledge & major OS books for the mainstream reader, as opposed to all the technical books. It didn’t stop people from asking for the books, but as soon as they heard our prices they almost always ordered online at that point anyway.
I take some small pride in the fact that Amazon wouldn’t exist if their initial programmers hadn’t been able to learn from books bought at a bookstore — likely a local Seattle Borders, come to think of it. Sweet, bitter, bilesome irony.
Most Wall Street analysis misses the point: bookselling is not retail. Yes, Amazon does “bookselling” “better”, but only because they are an internet-boosted mail order catalog, customers approach Amazon with a completely different set of expectations, and in no way should a website actually be equated with the poor retailers who have to make rent, payroll, insurance payments — and, if they are a nation-wide retailer: 100 or 200 or 800 sets of duplicate inventory and just as many public bathrooms that have to be cleaned on a daily basis.
The Physicality of bookstores is actually an advantage, not a liability — and I know you doubt that — but for right now let me just state that I see not just a place for bookstores in our future, but a genuine opportunity. I don’t need a red-power-tie-wearing eastern seaboard profit-sucker to tell me that my business model is wrong. I don’t need an open-color western seaboard new-media-type to tell me that old business models are broken. I don’t need a corporate suit telling me I’m ‘wasting’ payroll and we need to ‘right-size’ our inventory.
Screw ‘em. Screw ‘em all.
People come into my store every day. They hang out for hours. My phone is practically ringing off the hook. With a major competitor suddenly leaving the market last year, we’re busier than ever. Even if the first question every person asks when they walk in the door is, “Where is your bathroom?” and only 1 customer in 10 is buying anything: that is still more traffic than 80% of other retailers ever get and hell: My only problem is how to monetize that traffic. [That sounds oddly familiar for some reason.] And one in ten is a hell of a conversion rate — One in one hundred is a hell of a conversion rate.
Keep in mind my three threads from the top — Bookstore Tourism is up, Total Book Sales are steady, the bookstore is still a Gathering Place — and let me add two additional points.
The bookstore chains are too big.
…while the actual bookstores themselves are too small.
A nation-wide chain of 200-and-on-up-to-1000 bookstores, with at least one store in all of the top 200 markets and as many as 30 outposts apiece to cover each of the 10 biggest CMSAs seems like a worthy goal — indeed, the very definition of business ‘success’ — but only, I think, for traditional retail.
“Traditional” retail is getting harder to define though. It used to mean five-and-dimes, general stores, mom-and-pop town-square or main-street storefronts, with only a few department stores in major urban downtowns. Then it meant a mall-unit-sized storefront rented, well, out at a mall. Now, “traditional” retail means Target and Wal-Mart, while the even older models are “boutique” retail, or “specialty” shops. More often than not, traditional is used merely to differentiate physical shops from online retail.
Even considering just the major players in retail, there are a lot of different models: “Retail” by itself isn’t enough to define your business. IKEA seems to get by with just 38 US stores, but there are more than 3,000 Wal-Mart Supercenters. Several regional & national chains operate tens of thousands of supermarkets & grocery stores (of all sizes) and if we define a convenience store to include the type of snack-and-sundry shops attached to filling stations then there are at least 120,000 in the US, and likely many, many more. Retail is a box Wall Street types like to dump companies into (usually companies they want to ignore) because retail is not sexy, it’s not “growth” or “potential” or “e” or “net” or trendy.
It might be better to forget everything you think you know about retail & admit that not all ‘retail’ stores will fit in the same mould. [The number of executives brought in to run Borders that only had grocery/supermarket store experience is telling, and one of the things that contributed to its downfall]
Part of it is a matter of scale:
If you only had to stock 5000 or 15,000 or 40,000 SKUs [Stock Keeping Units, individual items with their own barcodes] you could afford to keep the exact same inventory at every location. Your largest supermarket, all those aisles of cans, boxes, bags, and packs (…and the produce codes — the sticker on your banana …and the generated codes for items from the deli, bakery, and butcher) — all those things at the nice big Supermarket add up to about 40,000 units. The weekly grocery shopping trip is an hour-long tour up and down every aisle, stopping, comparing, filling a huge cart, and then schlepping it all home. Supermarkets are huge and they stock 40,000 different items. Home Depot & similar warehouse-style home improvement centers also stock about 40,000 different items per store, it’s just that sheetrock & 2×12s take up more space then celery & cream of mushroom. Similar business, though it requires the larger footprint.
I’m belabouring the point because I’m trying to give you a sense of the scale of bookselling: most folks, when they think of the bookstore at all, it’s only for a magazine, the occasional bestseller, and the coffee — and in the view of the customer that’s just three items.
In a bookstore, out of about 12 to 15 millionSKUs [in the book biz we call ‘em ISBNs] we can only manage to stock up to 200,000 or so, on the same footprint as your larger supermarkets — about half a football field or so.
No matter how many books I manage to stock, I still get compared to that 15 million number: As a (national chain big box) bookseller it is assumed by nearly everyone that I stock *all* books. If your local bookstore only stocks 100,000 books, you likely think of them as chintzy and small. A bookstore that only stocks as many items as a Whole Foods gets written off as a “mom n’ pop” indy.
Did I mention that my (rough) estimate of 15 Million or more books likely under-estimates the number of self-published, print-on-demand, and e-books, and there are also an unknown number of out-of-print-but-still-available-used books — I haven’t seen an estimate for books-in-print that includes all these new and old categories so the total may be more than 15 Million. And I can only stock a fraction of those.
The closest analogy I can think of is trying to find one particular resident of Ohio or Michigan during the annual UM/OSU game — and 200,000 is twice the seating capacity of either stadium.
The enormity of the task is lost on my customers. Especially when my computer says there is a single copy of a book, “Your computer says you have it; Where is it?” [*impatient foottap*]
We’re trying to locate one fan out of 200,000 and he’s not in the seat listed on his ticket — hell, he may still be tailgating in the parking lot. What more can I do?
As stated, despite the glories of a Big-Box Bookstore [I’d have killed for one anywhere near my hometown in 1986] if we’re only stocking 100,000 books, the store is too small.
Back in July I wrote a column outlining a new bookstore model: A small sales floor with a warehouse attached, basically a book distributor hiding behind a retail store front.
Let’s do one better:
Consider your customer base, how they currently use your space, what they actually want, and then serve those interests while running your shop and investigating other income opportunities.
That statement is vague enough to be useless — so let me break it down.
What is the social purpose of bookstores? Why, *why* do people hang out in bookstores? Why do we get more foot traffic? Why do people kill time in bookstores? Why do some people come inside just to make a phone call on their mobile when in most other instances they would step outside to do the same?
We get used and abused — much moreso than any other retailer: do people take their shoes off and settle in on the floor in any other shop? Do you hang out for hours in a Best Buy? Do you bring a lunch and your textbook into the local deli? Do you ask your bartender where you can plug in your laptop? [actually, you do and I have – but if you’re not drinking & paying your freight: your bartender will tell you to move on.]
I don’t actually need to answer any of those questions: It’s enough that people do. I, as a bookseller, have more foot traffic than any other retailer: my aisles on a Saturday in July look like other stores in December.
Over time, a short dozen years or so, the [national chain big box] Bookstore has replaced a number of other social spaces: I hear kids under six refer to our store as ‘the library’ — only to be corrected by parents, “No, at this library we have to pay for books to take home” [I’ll give you a minute to let that sink in…] — and I have a feeling in another 3-4 years the youngest kids won’t even know there was a difference. Instead of meeting at an office, applicants meet employers at a bookstore. Instead of meeting at an individual’s home, book clubs come to the bookstore, knitting circles come to the book store, study groups come to the bookstore — instead of meeting at a bar or restaurant, friends meet at the bookstore, before the movie, before bar hopping, before the game — it’s where some blind dates start and where some former lovers meet to end it.
I didn’t ask for this. In fact, when I first applied for a job at the bookstore, silly me, I thought I’d be selling books. Instead I’ve become a concierge, a research fellow, an academic advisor, a business consultant; at times I have to be a referee or a cop. At bookstores that run a coffee shop, we’re also baristas & waitstaff. If occasionally I lament, on this blog or other platforms, that customers suck, mostly it’s because I have to run a frickin’ community center, for free – when all I really wanted to do was sell books.
I’ve expended a lot of mental effort, thought long and hard, on just what it is that makes bookselling so very ‘special’ and the only thing I’ve been able to come up with is seating. Tables & Chairs. Not a theater [chairs only] and not a restaurant [where you only keep a table while you’re running a tab] — at the bookstore we put in chairs, and as soon as we added the coffee shop, we also added a mess of tables.
Since it’s been this way since the big-box expansion of the mid-90s, customers now expect seating. They demand it from the bookstore, along with a ready electrical outlet. Even though, when we were opening stores 15 years ago there was no way to anticipate that customers would demand a way to recharge phones and run laptops, logic doesn’t play and we’re held in contempt because we didn’t install a service that didn’t even exist a decade ago.
And yes, while I can think of an easy response to your question, “Where can I plug in my laptop?” I’m not allowed to employ sarcasm at work.
Also, I’d be more than happy to point out that there is no where to sit because we sell books, not furniture, but again: I’m not allowed to employ sarcasm at work. (we have chairs; the fact that other sponges are hogging all the chairs is not my fault, and don’t come to the desk expecting me to immediately fix it.)
Suddenly, despite the existance of numerous very fine cafés, libraries, student unions, public parks, museums, churches, community centers, small theatres — and of course, all the bars, pubs, taverns, and restaurants — suddenly in 2012, we find the bookstore is the only public place people can hang out in.
It’s preposterous on its face, but that’s how our customers treat us. Instead of complaining about it and continuing to fight it, I say:
But we’re going to need a bigger bookstore.
Many places are “public” — parks, for example. Or museums. Or even government buildings, like the town hall or courthouse — but many public buildings have specific uses, and unless you have business there you never actually go, no matter how nice the lobby is. There are very few public spaces that are also social spaces: the library, obviously, and those few actual Community Centers that exist. But for whatever reason (are they too square? terminally unhip?) many of the citizens these facilities were set up to serve wouldn’t ever be caught dead going there. Social space is not the same as public space —
Doing a quick mental survey [from my past architecture studies] I find myself coming up with very few analogues that also provide social space, besides the bookstore: some “lounges” and pubs, hotel lobbies, casinos, country clubs, and the shopping mall.
The shopping mall food court is the best model: open seating [& seating in quantity] surrounded by retail and food. Oddly, even though food courts certainly get their fair share of use, they are not the ‘hang out’ that the bookstore is. (maybe it’s because we supply reading material.) Which is odd; I mean, a few of the local malls in my hometown have even added wifi. Maybe it’s because most food courts are designed to encourage turn-over on tables, just like a restaurant. Cheap-feeling chairs, wobbly tables, hard tile floors & echoing spaces: no one wants to hang out here. Compare that to a casino, for example: even the layout is vaguely similar (food service & small shops surrounding a central area) but the focus is different as the owners want you to sit down and never leave. It’s not about table turnover but stickiness: come and stay awhile. Can I bring you a drink?
Have you ever thought about hotel lobbies? I’m guessing no. But perhaps (given the assumed proclivities of my reader base) you have been to a sci-fi, comic book, or fan convention. While the very largest cons take place in convention centers (another social space, but the worst model I can think of) smaller cons are held in a single hotel. There are conference rooms, a few restaurants, a decent bar (if you’re lucky; though the drinks are still overpriced) but there is also something fairly unique to hotels: the public lobby. Hotel lobbies are just transitional spaces, like airport terminals or train stations — one is meant to pass through, the lobby is not the destination. But despite that, and because of their long experience in the business, the lobby is also a space to temporarily stop and rest. Most have chairs & sofas that put my bookstore chairs to shame, and often these are grouped into smaller, semi-private spaces where small groups can gather, rather like a living room.
The lobby has nothing to do with the economic activity of the hotel — but the restaurants & bars do. And when a hotel hosts a conference or fan convention, the lobby is the major public and social space.
What does any of this have to do with bookselling? Stick with me for a bit longer: IF the bookstore is a social space AND our sales depend, at least in part, on foot traffic in stores AND we have to put up with all you people anyway: why not go with it? Make the bookstore a destination — not an errand but a day-trip. Capitalize on what people are already doing, increase our site traffic, make a major impression on public consciousness — and then innovate to make the most of each customer, and each customer visit.
Sure, we currently run a café (can’t sell books without coffee these days) but the cafe shouldn’t be just a sideline — or more accurately, it won’t be the only sideline. Our coffee shop would stand to one side of the main seating area, now a spacious lobby: a nirvana of tables with outlets built into each column, a brace of comfy chairs on the inside wall, a row of patio tables just inside (and perhaps also just outside) the sunny windows, with a semi-detached space that just might be configured for an impromtu class or book group — and a separate 2nd floor lounge that would be even better for both. Set up the social space first, and put it in the center of your retail empire.
Immediately adjacent to the central seating [I could call it a ‘food court’ — ‘cause that’s what it is — but I hope the customers don’t dismiss it as such] in addition to the de rigueur coffee shop, we’d have a quick lunch counter, or maybe 2-3 concessionaires: Subway? Bagels? Ice cream? Starbucks or Dunkin’, even, instead of in-house coffee? (If I win the lottery, I’m setting aside a couple million to entice Tim Horton.) I’m proposing a monstrous bookstore with daily traffic that is going to exceed all-but-December-retail numbers, and our December is going to be absolutely nuts. As a landlord, I could make a nice chunk on rent.
Just off the central seating area, we’d have a full service restaurant & a first rate pub. These also directly support our ‘social space’ nexus: come in for a quick nosh and check your email while you wait for friends to get off of work, and then transition to the bar or to a table for dinner. Once again, we could run these ourselves or rent out the space; either works, and depends on how you want to collect your profits: guaranteed rent, or less reliable profits-from-food-service operations.
— I’ll understand if you’re not really comfortable with either. It’s a rare bookseller who has experience in facilities management AND hospitality & bar operations. Why, I think there may only be one person with this particular skill set. [*smirk*]
Keeping with the ‘mall food court’ model: once we’re past scone-throwing-distance from the coffee shop and our central seating area, well, that’s where the rest of our retail operation goes.
In this case, the rest of the retail operation is a big effing bookstore.
Now, let’s just assume for a moment that the commercial real estate market is so supressed that not only are a number of shopping malls all-but-closed, they’re even available for purchase — with no current tenants, falling into disrepair as we speak, and ripe for radical remodeling.
[I know: so unlikely, if it weren’t actually true. Once in a lifetime opportunity here]
We could buy a small regional mall — special bonus: the older and smaller malls are all closer to city centers, not further out in the suburbs — close down half of it to use as our warehouse/book distributor space, and reallocate the rest, building out from the food court, to sell books.
The wonderful thing (from the booksellers’ point of view) is that we could set up a window where 50% of our customers could just walk up and ask for, oh I don’t know, Organic Ostrich Farming, and then we go back into the stacks, find it, and hand it to them. We’ll set up this special order window with its own [small] seating space and register — yes, you can look at the book, but unless you buy it you’re not leaving this lounge. Make it comfortable. Special lighting, extra comfy chairs, an assigned cashier — maybe even a cash bar — and a really big bruiser of a bouncer. Thank you, we have exactly the expensive medical textbook you want, you can even browse it, but no way in hell are you stealing it. Most customers would never know: we have a book, we hand it to you, you buy it. But for an extra special subset of our customers: yes, we get it, we’re onto you and don’t come back.
Past this order window, we’d have the sales floor. Yes, I’m advocating that we separate “the stacks” from “the sales floor” — as 50% of our paying customers and 98% of the rest are either browsing bestsellers, browsing a specific genre [& we can acommodate that], or just hanging out for the free wifi and reading magazines. There is no need to make every shelf in every category available to the public. If the customers who already know the title and will buy it (if we have it in stock) can just walk up to the register closest to the main entrance and do so — that is a win-win-win. This call-ahead and pick-up may in fact be more than 50% of our business. We can stock as many titles as we can get our hands on, put them ‘in the back’ where they are immediately ready for sale, even if they aren’t necessarily ‘on the shelf’. We can take that part of the business and really streamline it.
What about the folks who don’t or won’t buy books? Well, we’ve already set aside quite a bit of dedicated space for social butterflies & campers — and this space will pay for itself with food service, I think.
And what about the grazers & browsers — who love to linger over tables & displays, and want to see what’s new – the readers, the book lovers — The other half of my book-buying customer base?
That’s the whole point of the bookstore. And now we look at how to really run a bookstore:
If I were in fact repurposing a shopping mall, then one “storefront” would be a newsstand with newspapers & magazines. Another might be a newsstand with comics. One storefront could easily be turned over to just the New York Times bestsellers & other mass market paperbacks — the direct equivalent of an airport bookstore. These could easily be the closest “stores” to our central-seating-area-slash-lobby-slash-food-court and there’s little thought or bookselling expertise required here, past keeping shelves full. We’re just meeting demand.
Just past the obvious though: If I can hire someone who loves romance novels, why not give her 3000sq.ft. and full reign to order in titles, stock shelves, merchandise tables, and above all sell books. We can keep the overstock in our warehouse [adjacent, on site] and face out a full “bookstore’s” worth of genre titles.
And do the same for mystery
And the same for sci-fi
And the same for history
And the same for biography [say, does A&E want to do a co-branded bookstore, with DVDs?]
And the same for design, or architecture, or gardening(from May-Sept), or cookbooks, or travel, or all of the above and more…
And most specifically, for kids: in the less-and-less-hypothetical case where I was taking over a shopping mall, put the kids shop [picture books, beginning reader, plush, games, et al.] in the last remaining ‘anchor’ location and put both Young Reader [10-12] and Teen Lit [12-16] in the two locations just outside – close enough that kids can wander away from parents but far enough so neither set has to shop the ‘kids’ dept. [*ack*, gag me]
[And even if it’s also in the teen section, there’s a chunk of ‘YA’ & ‘Teen’ lit that needs to be mixed in with the adult stuff – easy to hand, no judgements, cash at the register, thank you]
While I’ve used the shopping mall as my touchstone [as that is what I, as a child of the 80s, am familiar with] [and damn but the commercial real estate market is depressed: I’ve run numbers. I think I could actually buy a mall] this Concept would work even better with repurposed industrial or office space. I can only imagine what DC’s Old Post Office or an art space like Le Lieu Unique (in Nantes, France) would look like if they were turned over to books.
The future of retail depends on managing inventory, especially in the face of internet competition. Still, it is easy to open a huge bookstore that doubles as a distribution center; in fact, with a little advance planning you could open up a very small chain that covers hundreds of millions. […which I’ve already posted]
There are are at least two ways to flatten verticals in retail: Amazon figured out one – sell direct from a warehouse & ship it. You cut out two layers—distributors & retailers—and make it possible to sell direct to customers from a massive inventory.
IKEA has figured out a second path: sell direct from your warehouse to visiting customers. This also cuts out two layers — a distributor/warehouse (as the store is your warehouse) and shipping via post or parcel service. Amazon’s model is not the only way to lower costs. From point of manufacture to customer fulfillment: physical retail space is not the only or even obvious thing to cut.
At IKEA, customers go home today with fine, flatpacked Scandanavian designed furniture & housewares. IKEA does so well with this model that their web site, actually (and intentionally) kind of sucks – and more often than not sends you into the store to buy.
Let me go back to the “massive inventory available direct to customers” part – Chris Anderson called this The Long Tail and characterizes it as an internet phenomenon. However, the long tail is a change not in available books but in customer demand – this new demand is enabled by internet search but not restricted to internet retail. If I, as a retailer, can meet that demand today, then there is no need for a customer to order from the internet. So we need a bigger storefront. Or even a warehouse. This is a logistics problem, and one I can solve.
Of course, someone is going to come at me with ebooks. You know, I’ve already done that math, and ebooks are great but they’re going to top out at around 50% of the book industry and that still leaves a lot of Billions to be made in retail.
Let me start with one of my personal pet peeves: calendars. A calendar is so utilitarian and boring, it must be hard for you to imagine that anyone could possible harbor a deep-seated hatred of the damn things.
Allow me to educate you:
First, to make room for calendars, I have to take books off of the sales floor. Most often, the books removed will be those missed least, so as directed by my benevolent corporate overlords, I remove anywhere from a sixth to a third of my bargain department [&while the price points are lower, the margins are actually better] [and I’ll also note here that quite a lot of what my customers like to call ‘coffee table books’ are classed as bargain titles, at least that’s how things stand currently]
So right before my biggest sales season starts I have to remove somewhere in the neighborhood of $60,000 worth of merchandise just to make room for a seasonal product. The only reason the trade-off makes sense is that the price points are vaguely similar: about $15. The calendars are thinner, but they don’t stack nearly as well. Call it an even swap —
Though of course this neglects the payroll to remove the books, replace the fixtures, receive & display the calendars, and then go back and unwind the whole mess each February.
Add on to that the customers who do not & will not pay full price for a calendar, and habitually & perpetually wait not just for our annual clearance but for the very last days of our annual clearance so they can buy the calendar for just two bucks.
And that’s fair; everyone is entitled to save money. However, if you wait months after the calendars initially go out, you are not entitled to complain about our selection. We do not stock for the clearance; instead we’re optimizing our selection and merchandising for sales at full price. If you wait, well, you’re taking a chance. (But don’t tell me that ‘in the past’ I’ve had more to choose from – - you’re only pointing out that we used to lose a lot of money, and while as a customer you might want to ‘blame’ us for a perceived lack, we’re doing what we have to… to stay open, among other things.)
While I’m ranting, let me also point out that corporate has me putting out calendars starting in late July and I then have to keep up with the damn things for 7 months and then they go on clearance — and after all that, by the 3rd week of February I don’t particularly feel sympathetic when customers respond, “what, already?” when I tell them we’re sold out.
Calendars are just the tip of the iceberg; let me add onto that journals & blank books, booklights, bookplates, bookmarks, stationary, greeting cards, and “little gifts” — it’s all crap. When customers ask me for them, I personally feel a bit of resentment.
It’s not enough that I stock & sell books. Thousands of books. Hundreds of thousands of books. No.
“Excuse me, where are the cards?”
Oh, I don’t know, maybe a Hallmark store? Why do I have to carry them? Why do you assume I carry them?
OK, so, um books are printed on paper and so are calendars and greeting cards. Fine.
But what about board games? Or jigsaw puzzles? It’s not that I don’t have them, but when people ask, there is never a hint of doubt in their voice, it’s more of an accusation, and the unstated sentiment “I know you are stocking them, book-slave, where are you hiding them?”
Past cards, journals, and games: There are the magazines, the CDs, the DVDs.
The news agent [or newsstand, depending on which version of English one favours] used to be a free-standing, self supporting business. Now, the bookstore is expected to not only adopt this orphan, but to spend more money on the same business, to stock more magazines and more special issues and hang onto them longer and to let any and all customers just hang out and read them for free — because we are a bookstore and that’s what we do.
Record stores used to sell vinyl and tapes and CDs: yet another free-standing and self-supporting business. But now, with all chains and most indies closed, the bookstore is supposed to take up all that slack, and have listening stations in store to let our customers sample albums for free. Because, c’mon, why bother to stock the discs if customers can’t sample them. That’s basic.
The video stores [both sales and rental] used to be stand-alone, self-supporting businesses. Customers might lament that there are so few options left, but it doesn’t stop them from attempting to haggle on price: “$80 for an HBO box set! That’s Robbery!” – yeah, I get the sentiment: I’d love to own that series, too. But the prices are set by HBO, not here in the store, and nothing about “customer service” requires me to take a loss.
From thank you notes to electronic dictionaries to DVD box sets to portable CD players — there is nothing to tie these products [and product lines, and more] to the “bookstore” but that doesn’t stop my customers. “Where are your calendars?” – when asked of me in March – is enough to spike my blood pressure and shave another 2 minutes off of my life expectancy.
It doesn’t stop there. Customers ask me how much it costs just to rent the book. They ask, not if it just might be possible to make photocopies, but rather with every expectation “So where’s your copy machine?” or, one bridge too far, “I need you to notarize this.”
Really? I mean, Really?
One could say that this is ‘my’ fault [in that it is a continuation of trends begun by my corporate overlords long before I began working for them]. I present it to you as an object lesson, a cautionary parable: don’t adopt orphans.
An enthusiastic associate comes to you with a business idea: A new product line. The margins are good, the floorspace required is minimal, we might have to buy in bulk, and on non-returnable terms, but the items are ‘in demand’, ‘sure sellers’, ‘obvious extensions of our core business’
…and stop right there.
Our core business is books and should always be books. If we have space for new product it should always be used for more books and if we figure out how to shoe-horn another fixture onto our sales floor, dammit that had better be another damn bookcase that holds more books.
No one goes to the Strand in New York for the tote bags.
What might be next for bookstores, if the chains fail?
Let’s take a typical Metropolitan area – say, 4 Million people spread across multiple counties in mostly suburban densities and nothing like Atlanta, as this is a just a model & not specific to where I currently work. Say you have 12 big box stores spread across the region, but nothing too close to each other — you know, standard retail practice, at least 5 miles between outposts.
As stated, despite the glories of a Big-Box Bookstore [I’d have killed for one anywhere near my hometown in 1986] if we’re only stocking 100,000 books, the store is too small.
Thankfully, I work for a big bookstore chain and so, there are other locations. Sadly my customers also know this so the very first thing out of their mouths when I say ‘no’ is, “Well, does another one of your stores have it?”
With 12 stores across our sample metroplex, that’s 12 sets of all-but-duplicate inventory — and it’s great that we can treat our extended storefronts as a single ‘store’ and search the million-or-so books in town like it’s a single inventory. We want to sell you the book. But there are problems: 50% or more of the inventory store-to-store overlaps. Still, and as is most often the case when a customer has to have a book, sell-outs are temporary, and likely another store does have it. We call around, we find a copy, we pull it off the sales floor and hold it for you.
There is a disconnect & breakdown before we close the sale, though, and the deal-breaker [apparently] is the distance between stores. Out in the ‘burbs individual stores may be 15 or 20 miles from each other, but only 8-10 miles from the intown location — which also partially explains my increased call volume (for my theoretical bookstore located in the center of town, not where I currently work, blah blah yeah I’ll stop pretending)
After we’ve tied up booksellers at two stores, for however long the search took, and found your book or books — you don’t bother to pick it up. [stuff happens, we all know that, and I know 5 miles is so far and what book was I asking for again? I’ll just ask again later or order it online]
We’ve pulled a book off the shelf that might have sold to someone else, too – particularly if you heard about it on TV or the radio. Alltogther this is a major headache — and yet, it’s the obvious thing I have to do for every customer when the question is asked. In fact, I bring more pain upon myself by offering to search our entire chain for the one copy of your book without ever being prompted.
When I say current bookstores are too small, that’s exactly what I mean: We could easily stock 5 times our current inventory and still not quite meet current demand, even for books that ‘most’ stores would carry – as any one store cannot match the gestalt selection across the chain.
And when I say chains are too large, again, that’s exactly what I mean: why maintain duplicate inventories with only small differences [typically books we’ve sold & are out of today but would’ve had in stock] across a dozen stores when a single, landmark location could encompass all the stores, actually stock less dollar-wise, but stock more individual titles?
Don’t just rethink the box, rethink the chain. Instead of opening up a smaller, pale imitation of a New York 5th Avenue bookstore everywhere, open up just 50-80 landmark bookstores. That might mean just one each for many cities – or one in a nearby city for some. Why dilute your single best selling point: stacks packed from one end to the other and to the ceilings, chock full of books. Double down on that bet – forget the ‘standard big box retail’ model and think big.
Sure, right now I can special order books for customers from the warehouse. Takes about a week, down here where I’m currently located. (I’m sure it’s better up at corporate HQ, since they built the damn warehouse in the state next door — fine for you, sucks for 200 million of your potential customers.)
Let me turn it around though: If all the books are in the warehouse, why not throw in a coffee shop right there inside the distribution center and open it to the public?
I would aver that the bookstore chain is too big, too spread out, and also played out: our customers don’t care enough anymore to support neighborhood bookstores at that scale. We need to open a truly humongous bookstore. Much like amusement parks (Six Flags, Sea World, Disney, et al.) maybe each US Census MSA would only support one – or rarely two or three. While we all love a neighborhood bookstore [& there is a place for such; I personally could generate business plans for bookstores on a sliding scale from bistro to Strand] the real need of most communities is for a single Landmark bookstore like the Tattered Cover in Denver or Powell’s in Portland — or yes, the Strand in New York.
I’m looking beyond books, however.
The future of retail depends on managing inventory, especially in the face of internet competition. Let’s consider a new model, a truly humongous bookstore that doubles as a distribution center: with a little advance planning you could open up a very small chain that covers hundreds of millions.
Let me give you a list of zip codes — my book oases, or nirvanas — and show you 1-day UPS ground delivery times covered by each.
27514 Reasearch Triangle Chapel Hill
45701 Athens, OH
92102 San Diego
94305 San Jose
So. 10 stores — 10 Massive Stores, each equivalent to 3 or four football fields, or equivalent to a regional book distributor’s warehouse, or to the all the outposts of a chain bookstore in their own particular metros.
The 3 stores on the west coast are within 1-day UPS delivery of 48-50 Million people.
The 3 stores in the south east are within 1-day of 48-50 Million people.
Two stores in the midwest are sufficient for another 48-50 Million customers.
A single store in Philadelphia is within 1-day of about 35 Million, as is the single store in Boston.
Not everyone would be willing to drive to a bookstore just to pick up a book — even if that bookstore was 4 acres of bookshelves under a single roof (about the size of a large IKEA, for scale). But if you could pick up a phone and call [or use a website] and know the book you need is there, that might change your mind. If you could know they had 20 copies of the book, and you needed 20 copies for your employees or clients, you’d be sending some lackey driving the 2 hours before he could sit down at his desk in the morning.
If this huge bookstore had not just a coffee bar, but also a pub, sit-down restaurant, hot dog cart, and ice cream shop — you’d plan your weekend around a trip.
There would be other ways to maximize the investment and key into “bookstore tourists” — topics I hope to cover in other posts. My point here was to build on yesterday’s column and show that there is a future for bookstores past the Big Box chain model. Additionally, if you chose to compete with Amazon on the internet, your massive bookstores are also fulfillment centers.
You don’t have to compete nationwide. Pick a market, serve that market. A single store in the right place can be the best bookstore for 30 Million customers — in person or with guaranteed 1-day delivery (at UPS ground rates, or via the post). A small chain of just 3 stores could easily serve 50 Million.
The 10 stores outined above are within a 1-day delivery zone for 220 Million people, and within 2 days of another 70 Million customers. Looking at the map, a nice store in Denver would certainly plug in most of the rest to your network.
So, you want a nationwide brand that makes the most of internet searchability, access to customers, and that also features truly amazing bookstores that have the potential to be not just storefronts, but destinations?
Do we need a chain of 500 stores or do we just need 50? Or do we just need 10?
If you were an independent observer in 2006 and took a look at the state of bookselling, you would be forgiven if you thought Big Boxes like Borders and Barnes & Noble were the pinnacle, the ultimate evolved form, of bookstores. They were everywhere — actively courted by landlords eager to increase traffic to their newly built ‘lifestyle’ centers (basically, open-air suburban malls) and their success seemed to point out the superiority of ‘category killer’ big-box retail over the old Main Street shop, or even the century-old department stores.
For over a decade (1994-2006) the chains advanced until there seemed to be no township or exurb that didn’t have a bookstore outpost with at least a half acre of bookshelves, cafe tables, magazine racks, and comfy chairs. [.5 acres is about 20,000sq.ft. – the largest ‘flagship’ stores are three times that size.] For those of us who were in high school & college during this period — and, you know, *read* — it was like discovering the whole world. Nothing was unavailable, it seemed, and a store with 100,000 books had everything we needed.
Of course, during that same period, internet access was expanding and accelerating at an even faster pace and the capabilities (the possibilities) of the web quickly blew past and blew through many industries. Bookselling — that unique galapagos of retail — was particularly susceptible to the pressures of the web.
— but then again, so did Borders and Barnes & Noble. Big Box Bookselling was working until the biggest economic downturn in 80 years.
Amazon now stands, at the beginning of the 21st century, in the same spot occupied by Sears, Roebuck, & Co. at the beginning of the 20th.
I’m not going to argue the relative merits of Amazon versus the “advantages” of the bookstore. [Not again, anyway.] Instead I’m going to ask a now-obvious question: Why the Big Box?
Is 25,000 or 35,000 or 60,000 sq.ft. the ideal size for a bookstore?
The major chains didn’t pick the size or the format — and there is a reason we call them boxes. These square monsters might as well be oversized mobile homes for all the architectural imagination that’s been put into them. More thought and more creativity is put into the car access and parking than to any detail of the actual box. Sure, some are brick, some grey, some adobe-colored (depending on the location & perhaps ‘theme’ of the shopping center) but otherwise: big, boring, box.
The bookstore chains moved into boxes because from the late-1980s on, this was practically the only new retail being built. Over-built, in fact, as the old regional shopping malls we’re soon ringed by a dozen or so big-boxes apiece, and the new “malls” built further out from city centers were nothing but strings of boxes from the start.
Concessions could be wrangled from landlords because of the oversupply and the customer traffic generated by a bookstore, so the chains had incentives to open in the suburbs rather than re-develop similarly sized spaces closer to downtown. Indeed, the bookstores didn’t think to own any of their retail footprints at all — of the 1400 retail and college bookstores currently operated by B&N, they own exactly one. The rest are leased. Borders leased all their locations; the inability of Borders to come to terms with its landlords was part of its unsustainable expense structure. The availability and subsidized cost meant the two major bookstore chains grew quickly. One might even call the 1990s a Bookstore Bubble — in Border’s case, a bubble that popped.
The Big Box is not a natural fit for bookstores anyway: If anything, given the mission of the Bookstore in the post-Amazon world, the Big Box is too *small* and there are way too many of them, each with quite a bit of duplicate inventory. 30,000 or so books are common to all Big Box bookstores, roughly a third of all titles stocked. [source pg. 9 B&N’s 10-K annual report filing with the SEC] — for Barnes & Noble, that’s 700 sets of duplicate inventory. Of the remaining two-thirds, how much is duplicated across half the chain? Or even across just 100 stores? I’d say 80% in the first case and more than 95% for the smaller subset, though that’s just my guess based on personal experience.
I can’t compete with Amazon on price, so the primary advantage of the physical storefront is convenience: a book, in-stock, down the street and available for pickup today. That’s why I say the bookstore (even the big box bookstore) is too small. 100,000 titles doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface, and for a customer base now accustomed to finding books on the internet, my 100,000 books might as well be 10,000. Every hour of every working day, we get a call from a customer asking for a book [a particular book, as this title was specifically blogged about or came up as the #1 result in a keyword search] that there is no way in hell I’d bother to stock. [*]
The customer who calls with an exact title, or ISBN, doesn’t need a bookstore; she could care less about the coffee or the comfy chair, all she wants is the damn book and a bare minimum of time spent in the car or in the store in the process of buying it. Today.
I think what this customer wants is a book distributor, a warehouse with a sales counter. The ‘big box’ was just a reasonable substitute so long as the economics worked out: A reasonably-large mini-distributor that could be easily duplicated in many communities — good enough for the 1990s, self-supporting at 1990s levels of consumer demand for books, and nice places to hang out in besides.
Obviously the landscape for book retail has changed, but despite what you hear from tech bloggers & clueless financial analysts the market for print books is *not* shrinking — it’s growing from a small core of bestsellers, genre fiction, & general interest titles into the long tail of millions of books published (a number growing each year, and accellerating in growth).
The mistake that many make is to call the Long Tail an internet phenomenon. The internet is a discovery tool, but the Long Tail is a change in customer Demand. Come, work the phones at my bookstore for a week: you can learn this first hand. My inability to meet this demand is because my bookstore-cum-distribution-center is too small, not because customer demand can ‘only’ be met by internet retail.
The very first question a customer asks when I say I don’t have a book is, “Well, does one of your other stores have it?” (You might even have asked this question of a bookseller yourself.) This tells me two things: first that the convenience of a book, available today, *now*, is more important than how far away the bookstore is — and second, that the unnecessary duplication of bookstores in every neighborhood is a burden on bookstore chains, not a desireable outcome.
A single, truly epic bookstore that stocked even more books would be able to serve a city-sized community better (and be a better investment) than 15 stores spread across a metroplex, each stocking more-or-less the same 50,000 books plus a truly random and pathetic sampling of everything else. [“Everything else” being the long tail of 8-16 Million Books that are currently available, somehow. I can’t be more exact, sorry, as that 8 Million number includes used books, PDFs, ebooks, Google scans, out-of-print-but-still-in-stock-somewhere titles, and of course: the combined stock of approximately 3,000 bookstores coast to coast. Not just 8 million books; more than that — 8 million titles (multiple copies of each) and who knows how many more. The Library of Congress has 26 Million volumes but of course some of those are unique, & the vast majority out of print.]
The Big Box retail spaces were built without bookstores in mind, and bookstores only filled them because they were ubiquitous and relatively cheap. The retail chain model adopted by bookstores wasn’t necessarily the best thing for books or customers but it worked for a time: until the commercial real estate market changed, and customer expectations exploded past any physical retailer’s ability to cope, at least using the 1986 Big Box model.
New challenges call for new solutions; I have a few ideas. I’m back on a writing schedule now, so hopefully I’ll be able to share some of my ideas with you soon.
Further reading & references (most of these were also linked to in the column):
The list of books I’d never carry grows daily. Some from the smallest regional publishers or vanity presses aren’t worth the effort; self-published books, Print-on-Demand books, or books only available through Amazon’s CreateSpace service are technically available but a pain in the ass; books only available direct from the author’s website, or only available as e-books, can’t be had in a bookstore for love or money.
[edit: An Espresso Book Machine would partially plug this gap now, and might be a bridge to the future of book retail given time.]
Some of you would be impressed by the reaction customers have when I tell them that great novel a friend recommended is only available as an e-book. They really wanted the paperback. It’s sad, actually, but reaffirms my faith in books and bookstores: people still buy books, and they’d buy even more if we can make this new system work for them.
Let’s say that in one last-ditch attempt to control costs, I unplugged the phone, bulldozed the information desk, fired all my employees except for the cashiers, and no longer hired or trained any booksellers to answer questions or help you find books. Instead, I make sure all the bookcases are well-marked, hire a couple of people part time (to work nights) to shelve the books that come in, and otherwise just sort of let the place go.
Magazines that customers take off the rack and leave on tables and in chairs would just stack up over 14 hours, until the night crew can get them. Books that customers browse and leave would also collect in situ. I can put up a sign for you, though, “Please return merchandise to the proper shelf. Thank you. If you cannot remember where you found a book, please leave it on this recovery table.”
People are smart and considerate. I predict no problems, and relatively little need for the table (an afterthought) — a small end table below the sign should suffice.
Customers with questions would be directed to the single kiosk where they can try and search for themselves, and pointedly told that employees are not allowed to leave the register to help.
Would you shop here?
Why not? The books are all still there — unless another customer moved them, and how is that the retailers fault, that people can’t clean up after themselves? Even patrons of McDonald’s can bus their own table, right? Every bookcase would still have a label, new books would still be stocked. In fact, all I’m changing is the staff levels: at the base it’s still the same store, right?
My point is that the booksellers who work constantly to maintain the bookstore and equally hard to answer your questions are the reason we all shop at bookstores — the books themselves are available from just about anywhere these days, including Wal-Mart and the supermarket.
Books can be sold anywhere, that’s not what the bookstore does. We provide a specialty service. We’re the only retailer set up to answer questions, and being good sports, we’ll accept just about any question folks care to bring in — and see if there’s a book for it. Bookselling is, in fact, a service industry (lightly masked as retail) and though we support ourselves through the sale of books, it is not all that we do, or always what we do.
Still, the unstaffed bookstore I described above would also have a certain appeal to the customer base, so long as we still sold coffee & provided free wifi. A glorified reading room — or a library but without the pesky librarian to shush you when you talk too loud with friends (or on your cellphone). If you can manage the haphazard organization, you might even prefer it — so long as you didn’t need a particular issue of any one specialized magazine (how do you people find out about the feature article in Vogue Hellas anyway?) (yes, we stock it).
Still, even if you just hang out with us all day eventually you will want or need a book, and then you’ll suddenly be looking for a bookseller.
We have long since moved past the days when buying a particular book meant scrounging and searching dusty bookshops, or finding a accomodating bookseller with a copy of Bowker’s Books In Print (at the time an impressively large bound volume, like a huge phone book) and then waiting four to six weeks for the order to arrive.
There have always been other options: The Book of the Month Club and it’s competitors and genre-specific spinoffs were valid (and popular) options even into the late 80s — and indeed, the Book of the Month Club is still an ongoing operation, though smaller now in the internet age.
If one were interested in gardening, or astronomy, or model trains, the same catalog from which you ordered the tools of your hobby also offered books on the topic.
Prior to the shopping mall and the big box bookstore: your downtown department store had a book department (often on the first floor) [See sources: 1920, 1949] — while we almost always think of book shops as separate and an institution onto themselves, independent booksellers have, for a century and a half [and more: since the 1830s, starting in England and New York] been forced to operate alongside larger ‘corporate’ competition.
In doing research, I found complaints from booksellers lamenting the use of books as a loss leader to pull shoppers into department stores, from 1900: “Every Philadelphian who reads that offer might well get the idea that Lippincott’s and the booksellers are humbugs and frauds to want to charge $1.50 for a book which the philanthopic Mr. Wanamaker will give him for $1.10. It may be business but it is demoralizing. The discount question is one of the first that should be grappled with by the new American Publishers’ Association. If the publishers must sell to department stores, than let the books be published at net prices with closer discounts so that the department stores shall not get too much credit for cheap selling.” [Google Book Search is an amazing thing — and some problems are as old as retail.]
While competition from down the street is not only unavoidable, but considered kind-of-the-point of capitalist economies, the new competition presented to booksellers is both old & new, and pernicious.
Before you say, “No, Amazon sells books; so they’re a bookseller, right? Obvious, really…” I’ll point out that Amazon does not maintain a shop or storefront and sends books to you via the post or parcel services. So: catalog, QED.
The internet is a fabulous invention and has simplified many, many aspects of the old mail-order catalog business — there is no need to check off boxes on an order form or laboriously write out, line by line, item numbers, prices, tax, shipping & handling, and then mail the physical object (with an envelope and stamps, actually licking them… how barbaric) to some far away city and waiting, patiently, for the goods to arrive. Even the improvements provided by toll free 1-800 numbers and telephone orders are eclipsed by the convenience of web sites. But the basic process—placing orders fulfilled by a remote distribution center—is the classic mail-order business model.
Amazon is a book catalog, sure, but don’t give them undeserved credit. In positioning itself as a “Bookstore” Amazon has set up a false equivalence in the minds of customers and presents your average bookseller with a series of competitions that we cannot win:
“Oh, you don’t have it? But it’s in stock at Amazon.” 
“Why can’t I return this? Returns are easier at Amazon.” 
“Why is this book $28? There’s a copy for only $1.49 on Amazon.” 
“Why will it take 4 days to get here? I mean, I can get it in just 2 days from Amazon.” 
“Amazon customer service is just so much better. I’m never shopping here again.” 
 “In Stock” at Amazon is the same as an item being in stock at a warehouse, or book wholesaler, or even at a publisher. Yes, the book exists. That doesn’t mean you can have a copy today. Once again, customer perceptions are against me as a bookseller: The customer equates the click of a ‘buy’ button with the actual sale (“Oh, I just bought that on the web”) but the goods take time to deliver. Even a pizza takes 30 minutes.
 As part of its customer service, Amazon does make returns ‘easy’ – but not unlimited, and only for items sold & fulfilled by Amazon itself, not (always) for 3rd party sellers in the marketplace, and not (always) refunding shipping, either to the customer or back to Amazon. Yes, I’ve read anecdotes of amazing customer service — full refunds, prompt replacements, even shipping a new item before getting the old one back — but these seem to be true exceptions and not the rule.
Also, no one shows up to Amazon’s doorstep (corporate HQ, I guess, since they don’t have stores) with a book, asking for a refund. No receipt, no proof that it was even bought at Amazon, “it was a gift”, but with every expectation that they not only provide a gift card or credit for the full retail price of the book, but that Amazon do so with a smile and a thank you. And yet I get this kind of request daily at the bookstore.
 One reason Amazon can sell books for less than retail is they do not need to employ a staff member to give their customers basic lessons in economics, clarification that used goods are not equivalent to new, a concise description of how Amazon’s Marketplace works, or polite explanations that after ‘shipping & handling’ is tacked on by the seller they’re going to end up paying $8 and waiting a week for a 10 year old book.
And that’s fine, a deal in fact. And used books are great, I love them. Just don’t throw that buck-fifty in my face when we’re talking about a brand new hardcover that’s only been out of the box for 2 days.
 …If you are an Amazon Prime member (paying $79 for the priviledge) I’d like to thank you for remembering us at the bookstore, for making the trip to come in, for shopping with us, and even for taking additional time to engage a bookseller — up to and including asking if we can order a book for you and how long it might take to arrive. But why ask me to defend why I, as a bookseller (making minimum wage for all you know) with no control over either warehouse procedures or the shipping companies we employ, can’t match a premium service you pay an annual fee for. It seems a bit much. Are you trolling the bookstore?
 Amazon’s much vaunted “customer service” consists of having a web site, shipping the correct item in a more or less timely manner, and handling the 1-in-1000 or so orders where there is some sort of issue — damaged in shipping, lost, wrong item, or ‘customer error’ of various sorts up to and including folks who just decide they don’t want it — which they do via email and their web site. It’s almost impossible to actually call Amazon, as they don’t publish their 1-800 number anywhere on the site (Google searches pull up 1.866.216.1072).
Oddly, it’s the same thing I do every day – in person. And yet, I get no credit.
I’ll get to my point: Amazon is not only *not* a bookstore, they are a parasite on bookselling.
Amazon is soaking up all the easy sales: those where the customer already knows what they want and can clearly communicate that [to a computer in this case]. These are books that we have in store, often on front-of-store displays, including the bestseller lists and major new releases. In the event of unprecedented demand, due to breaking events or sudden popularity [50 Shades of Grey], Amazon will even sell you the book before they have it in stock. Under the guise of ‘preorders’ they get to sell at no risk, even before they themselves have to pay for the stock.
What about the hard sales? The customer searches? Yes, like any other search engine, a customer can use Amazon to find books — if the customer is willing to work at it. There isn’t anyone on hand to correct their spelling, or to point out that Instanbul, Constantinople, and Byzantium are all different names for the same city.
And as I point out above, no one picks up the phone to call Amazon. Have no doubt that people call the book store with the web browser window open and ask us questions until they can complete their Amazon order. If you’d care to find out just how many people call a bookstore, I’d like to invite you to my workplace for an afternoon. [We’re listed first in the phonebook, even ahead of all the other stores in our chain, in a metropolitan area with 4.5 million people — so yeah.]
Amazon doesn’t recommend books either, not like a bookseller can (and does). “People who bought this also bought” is a fine thought (and easy to code) but is it any surprise that folks who read Patterson have bought 5 of his other books? And the much vaunted [patented, even] customer reviews?
Randall Monroe has the most concise response to that:
After the holidays, every January I’m presented with dozens of gift returns — no few of which came from Amazon, no doubt — but I won’t belabor the point by mentioning it more than once twice.
In-store author events, browsing bookshelves, independent discovery, front of store displays as publisher marketing tools — all things the bookstore provides that you don’t get from Amazon, all of which promote reading and books (and book collecting, occasionally) as pursuits, and which also enrich your community. Amazon is slowly siphoning off sales that result from the efforts we make in-store, while giving nothing back to your community. They don’t even pay what should be their fair share of local taxes.
Amazon is a catalog, not a bookstore. Booksellers provide services to you that few appreciate, at least to the point of financially supporting us. Amazon also makes use of our services, in that we’re helping their customers, too; it’s our job to sell books even if we can’t bank the sale.
Imagine the bookstore with no sales staff, just cashiers. That’s the future we’re already heading towards as more bookstores are forced to hire fewer booksellers — or even to let a few go.
Imagine your hometown or neighborhood without a bookstore. Some of you don’t have to imagine, as one major chain has already closed.
There are solutions. One can even compete with Amazon. But the new bookstore will likely look a bit different than anyone is used to.
[I’ll write up my thoughts on a ‘new model’ bookstore in the next post]
For centuries before the steam-powered printing press, books were rare: to be scrounged for in small shops, bought used more often than not, each a treasure, and each treasured.
I don’t think most people [the ones who only buy one book a year] understand the bibliophile’s need for books, or the comfort of a personal library full of them.
Digital is fine. Ebooks can be exceptionally convenient. The ebook may eventually supplant certain types of cheap paperback; in fact is already doing so. I also hope the ease of ‘production’, ‘printing’, and distribution ushers in a new Age of Pulp.
(scifi is chugging along fine, but certain types of adventure & mystery stories could use a shot in the arm.)
However: there’s nothing like a book, a physical book in hand with some serious heft, to soothe one’s soul and decorate one’s house. And you can read them! Amazing things.
This is something basic I and many others understand. We were already buying books (much more than one a year) and after the general public’s fling with digital books: we’ll still be buying them. You can predict the death of the bookstore chains, and of the big publishers, and that’s fine. It may even be true. But even when the damn things were made by hand – there was an unquenchable demand for actual books that centuries of writing, printing, and constant reproduction of older titles did nothing to slake.
Books will be scrounged for in small shops, bought used more often than not: each a treasure, and each treasured.