“You see, if I believed that humans shopped for no other reason than to acquire goods, I might be more aligned with Andreessen’s view but in fact, we don’t shop just to get stuff – any more than we go to restaurants purely for nutrition. In fact, we often shop to fulfill other deeper needs as well – the need to disconnect, to socialize and to commune – and at times to simply be out in public. Why else would celebrities brave the hoards of paparazzi to shop for things they could undoubtedly have delivered to them on a silver platter? The physical, human experience of shopping is in some ways of far greater value than the goods that come along for the ride.”
The Future of The Retail Store : Doug Stephens, 24 July 2013
In the face of (what everyone tells me is) overwhelming competition from Amazon, or the internet generally, there’s no point in physical bookstores anymore.
The Bookstore has become a huge target, and one uniquely vulnerable, because everyone knows the bookstores are doomed — everyone agrees that either ebook downloads or internet retail (or the combination of the two) is qualitatively and quantitatively better than physically stocking books on shelves for eventual sale. Customer engagement, available titles, delivery logistics, price: on all these metrics the physical book — and that quaint anachronism, the ‘bookseller’ — have both been measured and found wanting.
In the new digital age, the dead-tree book is… superfluous? wasteful? The 21st century analogue of the 20th century buggy whip?
I don’t agree.
A lot of the discussion-slash-debate is about content and containers. Is a book the dead-tree object, or the words themselves? — or perhaps the ‘book’ is an aggregation of the ideas that are expressed by the words within. If the book is a collection of words in whatever format — whether that means a digital file stored on my hard drive, or my personal memory of a book stored in my head (and so: after I’ve read something, does that mean I’ve ‘pirated’ a copy of the book, a ‘good enough’ copy such that I don’t need to buy a physical OR digital version of the book?) — At this point, hell, what does it mean to “sell” a “book”. I’m confused.
Most Books (at least in 2013) are physical objects that exist in physical space. (Yes, most books are physical objects because no matter how much one loves digital or how easy it is to write vampire fiction, or to make digital copies of vampire fiction: that’s 5 years of digitization and sales history stacked against five centuries of mechanical printing backed by five millennia of publishing history.) Plus, for every e-cheerleader advocating digital, there is a ten year old clutching his physical copy of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. (Not a senior citizen who hates computers and doesn’t cotton to your “new-fangled e-reeder” – a kid with a book. And in the United States, four million kids turn ten every year.) I feel there is plenty of life left in dead-tree-books.
Bookstores are physical spaces that, while originally designed to sell the damn books, have since been hijacked into being ersatz libraries and the default gathering space. I used to call this the “burden” of bookselling, especially of the corporate big-box-chain: we get used and abused by our customers daily. Folks camping out all day, reading magazines or browsing the $80 art books, buying nothing except maybe a coffee, generally making life difficult for other customers, and treating the place like home.
Social Nexus. Local Landmark. Meeting Point. Civic Centre. Third Place.
Here, watch this lovely time-capsule of a video from 1980:
William H. Whyte: The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces – The Street Corner from MASNYC [The Municipal Art Society of New York] on Vimeo.
The video is not a parody, it’s the real deal. It’s also an hour long — If you don’t have time to watch the whole thing, skip ahead to 38:40 for some hints on why bookstores sell coffee, or to 50:00 to see SandwichBoardVader, followed by the book stalls of Central Park — and the final 8 minutes of the vid (as Whyte wraps up his points) will give you a few conclusions, as well as the flavour of the whole.
edit 27 February 2014: Since Vimeo, at the request of whomever still owned the copyrights, saw fit to remove Whyte’s excellent educational short — irksome, but that’s the law — let me instead substitute a pair of YouTube videos on the same topic:
George C. Stoney’s How to Live in a City, “architectural critic Eugene Ruskin guides us through unique locales which illustrate the fine line between organic and sterile urban spaces. It all depends on a place’s ability to attract and sustain, even if only momentarily, a sense of community.”
George Morris, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, Market Square
The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces was also (or perhaps I should say, was primarily) a book in 1980, ISBN 9780970632418, available used these days; though now also available in a new edition from PPS, The Project for Public Spaces.
The reason I linked to and embedded the Whole Damn Video is that while this 1980 flashback isn’t just the first-ever study on how people use social space: it is also exactly how people treat bookstores today. Not enough seats? Any windowsill or stack of books will do. Chairs? Mere props, to be moved at will and to satisfy whims. Quiet, secluded corners? Hell, the bookstore is full of them and our guests and customers will freely move both tables and chairs to whichever corner best suits them — or camp out there on the floor.
You need a place to meet your friends before the movie; you need a neutral, safe location for the first/blind date; you need an easily-described, easily-found landmark as the venue for job interviews; you’re a tutor but for multiple reasons you can’t meet your students in your own home; you’re a student, it’s the end of the semester, and you know all the lounges, meeting rooms, hell even the hallways on campus are going to be packed: where do you and your classmates go to finish the next group project?
If your local bookstore is still open, and selling coffee besides: Duh, the bookstore is exactly the social space you need. The Library closes too early, restaurants and bars expect you to order, and pay for something, and oddly the outdoor parks and other public spaces are unfit for this use.
The only “public” space available is actually a corporate, private space that is also attempting to engage in retail. (Wouldn’t Ikea be better? They have more tables and chairs…)
Why is this a unique burden of bookstores? To maintain a social lounge even to the detriment of our primary business? For whatever reason, it seems that only the bookstore will do. For many, many customer expectations and interactions, the ‘bookstore’ has nothing to do with books.
Last essay, I quoted an Inc. Magazine piece [Paul J. H. Schoemaker, 21 Nov 2012] on re-thinking your products. Let me quote it again:
“For example, consider the widely used product life-cycle concept in marketing. This biological metaphor suggests that products naturally arise, grow, mature and die, just as individuals do. So if managers wedded to this view see a product’s sales decline for several quarters in a row, they would naturally think that the product is in decline. And once the product strategy is adjusted to reflect this presumed stage of decline, resources may be withdrawn and decline will quickly follow (as a self-fulfilling hypothesis)…
“Procter and Gamble as well as many other companies, however, reject the product life-cycle metaphor as unduly self-limiting. Rather than viewing the product as a single organism proceeding through its life stages, they view the product as the species itself. So, the product must be adapted to changing circumstances to remain viable.”
— And so, the first big question for booksellers, even before we get around to what needs to change: What the hell is our product?
Is our main product what we think it is?
“Bookselling” isn’t the sale of books. “Bookselling” is the agreed-upon social construct: In exchange for retail sales (and coffee/cafe sales) sufficient to support the whole, the Bookstore agreed to be an open reading room, meeting place, learning resource, occasional event space, and yes: the only retailer where you can sit down in the middle of the floor, take off your shoes, and hang out. That was the deal. Booksellers didn’t change the deal: our customers did. You did.
It is not that “bookselling” was no longer sustainable, but rather that readers wanted all of the services, advantages, and atmosphere traditionally enjoyed at a bookstore, but not enough folks were willing to pay their freight. And when the deal collapsed, once again this was spun as a failure of bookstores:
In 2007, technological change was compounded by the the worst recesssion in 80 years. Borders, already weakened, collapsed so fast many were willing to write off the whole industry. Every tech blogger and business writer ignored both the services bookstores were already providing to communities [urban, suburban, exurban] and discounted entirely the crap we booksellers were willing to put up with from our “customers”, and boiled it down to price: if it’s cheaper online obviously it’s better online and so, bookstores suck. Many were (and are) already writing us off as fossils — as they sit in our cafe, drinking our coffee while flipping through magazines they weren’t going to buy. Some don’t even pretend to shop — they just park it in a chair with a laptop, hogging a whole table, and use our free wifi to go online to denigrate bookstores generally on whichever platform: “It’s way too crowded, I had to wait 10 minutes for a seat to free up, and there aren’t nearly enough power outlets. I don’t know how this bookstore plans to stay in business.”
If bookstores are getting more than their fair share (hell, their share plus Everyone Else’s share) of freeloading in-store foot traffic, the obvious follow-up question is:
How do we monetize that traffic? (that sounds familiar for some reason…)
[image source, flickr, Robert Scoble, tagged ‘Shenzhen China book store’]
Here’s one take:
(spoiler: I strongly disagree)
“What would I do if I were running B&N today? Good question. I probably would take a close look at what Indigo, the B&N of Canada, is trying to do. It is attempting to become a lifestyle shopping destination in categories in which books play a consequential part but extending far past books. Categories like house and home, cooking, kids, babies, paper and self-help are tied to big book categories. Indigo can have a legitimate hope of creating a shopping experience across the category that integrates books-and-beyond in a compelling enough way to get enough traction with customers to fill up the store.”
Should Barnes & Noble Turn into a Mini-Mall? : Roger Martin, guest post on the Harvard Business Review blog network [blogs.hbr.org], 15 July 2013
If we can’t sell the books, how do we sell that other crap?
The primary “product” the bookstore is selling is atmosphere. A place to be, and to meet. To spend time with family and friends on a Saturday afternoon.
What product lines, what categories do you add to that? Jigsaw puzzles, stuffed animals, stationary? Really?
How about a couple of nice, sit-down restaurants, a decent pub, and a movie theater instead. We can get people into the bookstores — and then after an hour or four they go home, maybe with a book. It seems to me that selling books is a decent start (and an undeniable draw) but the customer experience and the shopping trip itself is our actual product. How about we offer our customers a decent lunch to go with that, or dinner-and-a-movie, or the book group that meets in the bookshop pub every Tuesday?
Bookstores are a destination. Bookstores are entertainment. [Why in the hell am I open until 11pm on a Friday for folks to hang out in else? Corporate has figured out only the very smallest part of this…] Don’t dilute the book store experience by turning it into Target (or worse, Walmart): The way out is not to add more retail lines, but to embrace the social and pleasurable aspects of hanging out in bookstores. Build the Bookstore version of an amusement park.
You know what everyone misses these days? Record Stores. An actual, sizable record store that had inventory, not just a couple of aisles, or a rack or bin of discount CDs by the register. “I used to be able to spend hours in a record store” – you don’t become a “lifestyle shopping destination” with more retail crap, what you should be selling is the browsing experience.
Call this the “critical mass of inventory” — and right now, no one is stocking CDs anywhere near critical mass. Yes, I know: it means a couple of million spent in sunk inventory costs. Write that check. Think of your whole sales floor as a factory: Spend 3 or 5 or 10 million dollars in “sales equipment” and watch as that machinery sucks in customers and churns out sales.
This idea of the sales-floor-as-factory is also why I strongly advocate for Even Bigger Bookstores. 25,000 square feet is not the ideal size for a bookstore, just the footprint that was widely available in the early 1990s. 25,000 square feet is either 4 times too big, or ten times too small. In order to reach a critical mass of books, large enough to compete with Amazon, we need more. Build out to 300,000 or even 500,000 square feet — too big, you say? Well, we’re going to need room for that movie theater, and the pub, and the fine dining, and enough tables and chairs for everyone (the comfy ones, like we used to have) and hell, maybe we can set aside 25,000 square feet for a decent record store.
Those CD sales are incidental, though. Like the massive stacks of books, they’re just The Draw. The idea is to get someone into the bookstore and have them stay all day.
The average cost of a roller coaster is $8 to $10 Million. […a single roller coaster; most parks have a half dozen marquee coasters and twice as many smaller rides.] The cost of inventory for one big box bookstore is just $2 Million — for the cost of a single roller coaster, I could buy 5 times the inventory, half a million individual books or more. Let’s splurge, let’s spend $20 Million on inventory, get things up to a Million Books Under One Roof. My advertising is practically writing itself at this point.
This isn’t about a lack of demand, or a lack of money either: An average-to-large size metropolitan area of about 3-4 Million already has 10 chain bookstores in it. Draw together these fragments into single, massive, Landmark locations. Each landmark is also a local order fulfillment center, either for internet orders or to pick up at (much smaller) satellite locations. Next day or even same day pick-up might be possible — the cost of a mini-van, a driver, and the insurance has got to be cheaper then 10 sets of duplicate inventory in duplicate big boxes.
What would *I* do if I were running B&N today? — I’d be closing stores, sure. The “right number” of stores might be 100 or so. The Big Box is not a natural fit for bookstores anyway, it was just the cheapest, easiest option at the time. Instead of leasing boxes and opening stores, a smart bookseller would be building their own malls. Instead of relying on vague efforts and projections and promises that complementary businesses will move into the shopping center or neighborhood, do it, become the developer. If being next to a movie theater is good for your bookstore — and they tell me it does make a big difference — then open and run the damn theater yourself.
In inflation adjusted dollars, Disney spent $144 Million to build the original Disneyland. For half that I could build an amazing bookstore, one that would be the envy of the world.