Farhad Manjoo has an article this week in Slate where he states that we should abandon small local bookstores because they are inefficient and their books tend to cost more. They also have limited shelf space, thus limited selections, no reviews, and only employee recommendations for purchasing guidance.
I think both articles (and the attending comments to them) miss the point. Yes, some people do like supporting their local indie bookstores and don’t mind paying more for their books, but Manjoo’s criticisms are still valid. But, as the world of readers moves toward greater and greater ebook consumption, those criticisms of small bookstore will continue to be true. It will be harder and harder for a small bookstore with physical books to compete with the endless ebook shelves that Amazon and others make possible.
Which does not mean that our local bookstores need to disappear – they need to re-envision themselves as local reading centers, rather than local bookstores. They need to rethink the business model of selling paper books, because except for high-end coffee table books and some text books, book sales will be dominated by ebooks. Eventually, I believe, competition from indie authors and smaller ebook presses will bring the price of mainstream ebooks down to the point where they are not just competitive with paper books, but low enough to make the choice obvious. At that point, indie bookstores will need to sell something else. Coffee is probably not a bad idea.
I’m a big fan of local businesses as they tend to drive their profits back into the communities they serve rather than shareholders on the other side of the country or the world. But they need to give you a reason other than local loyalty to walk through the door. There is a lovely little indie bookstore in my neighborhood, but I rarely frequent it. Firstly, they have a woefully small selection of sci-fi and fantasy. Secondly, I tend to buy my books at the used bookstore down the street, or for half the price from Amazon, or as an ebook. There just isn’t much reason for me to wander in to browse. I suppose a store that is more genre oriented might get better foot traffic depending on the location. Forbidden Planet, in Manhattan gets plenty of foot traffic (although I have no idea how their sales are doing and they sell much more than just books). And Books of Wonder (also Manhattan) wisely gave up floor space to combine with Cupcake Café.
Author readings and musical performance can bring some people in, but I just don’t see how indie bookstores are going to survive trying to lure people into buy books they can get cheaper as ebooks directly to their reading device without having to reach into their wallet.
On the other hand, I can’t see people giving up reading in coffee shops. People like to get their coffee and sit and read. They like to sit and read period. So, don’t try to sell them books, sell them an elevated experience of reading. An experience they maybe can’t get at home. A quiet, attractive, well-lit place to read, surrounded by books that they can read sitting on a nice couch sipping a cup of tea, or high priced books they can rent weekly for a small fee, or even courtesy ebook readers with paid local advertising. And while they might still sell a few paper books, maybe they sell everything else that a reader could want: ebook readers, slip cases, lamps, pro-reading t-shirts and hats, parchments, pens, paper, and anything else they think people will like. Maybe they still have free readings, but maybe they also have paid classes to explore authors and genres. Maybe even classes on writing and ebook publishing.
Those are just some ideas off the top of my head. Maybe some would work. Maybe some wouldn’t. But indie bookstores will have to learn to adapt or they will end up like Borders. Which would be a shame.