By Michael Weinstein

Reports of the bookstore's death are greatly exaggerated

There’s been a great deal of conjecture lately about the future of the bookstore: What will happen to the B&N stores (especially if they do plan to reduce the number of stores)? What about independent bookstores? Will Amazon crush bricks-and-mortar stores out of existence? Oh, lordy, will there even be such a thing as a bookstore!?!?

Not surprisingly, this all made me think of a song. Under time pressure to have a song for the first Earth Day concert in 1970, the great Tom Paxton created the gold standard for songs about ecology when he wrote “Whose Garden Was This.” In it, the singer lives in a future world where flowers and forests no longer exist, birds no longer fly and he’s only seen pictures of blue rivers and heard recordings of breezes. In the end, he desperately makes us swear it’s true that “The forest had trees, the meadows were green, the oceans were blue and birds really flew.”

With all the issues facing bookstores today and all of the conjecture (some might call it sturm und drang) about the future of bookstores, it made me wonder: Will Paxton’s great-granddaughter one day write a similar song about bookstores? Will she make us swear that we went to a place where we could touch a printed book at all, let alone before it arrived in the mail?; where we could say to another human being, not an algorithm or a database, “What do you recommend?”

Here’s just a sampling of thoughts that are out there:

bookstoreThe Economist sees the future as a “cliffhanger,” and assumes that bookstores will have to offer even more non-book enticements than they are now, and suggests a membership model. Different levels of membership would provide different levels of access to events, private rooms, etc.

On the other hand, in March 2013 the Christian Science Monitor covered the resurgence of independent bookstores. They write of an American Bookseller’s Association survey indicating that sales at independent bookstores were up eight percent in 2012 over 2011. They also talk of a store in Austin that adds a camp to the offerings mentioned above—a camp where 11- to 14-year-olds not only swim and climb walls, but learn about mythology from university scholars.

The Passive Guy blog suggests that there are two questions publishers need to be asking themselves—“what are the bookstores really worth to us” and “what, if anything, can we do to bolster them financially?” Interesting questions.

Right here in this magazine, James Sturdivant  wrote a thoughtful and positive piece where he sees “a bright future for the indies.” As he says—“ there really is no replacing the discoverability of physical browsing.”

Is your head spinning yet?

bookstoreAll of this would seem to raise two basic questions:

  1. Is there, in fact, a place for bookstores in our future?
  2. What does the business model for that bookstore look like?

On the first question, I think the answer is yes.  Here’s my bias—I LOVE bookstores. In my youth, I would bring my lunch and spend the day in multi-level used bookstores on Fourth Avenue in Manhattan (which was also the home of hot metal typesetters, printers and book binders, by the way). I prefer independent and used stores to B&N, but these days you take what you can get.

Part of me wants to suggest that we take the emotional hot button of the “nobility” of the bookstore (particularly the local independent variety) out of the discussion and just talk cold, hard facts. But I don’t think we can. I think there are enough people out there that see (and feel) the value of the experience (as Sturdivant wrote), who want and NEED bookstores to exist, to contribute enough to keep them going.

But I also think that from a business sense, publishers see the value of bookstores. They may sell more books at Amazon, but publishers are smart enough (I hope) to recognize that independent stores can help “make” a book if they like it, that author readings and signings build loyalty.

As for the second question—what is the business model?—naturally there won’t just be one successful model. But on a broad base level, I think we can eliminate a couple of the ideas I’ve seen—such as the club membership (with levels) suggested by The Economist; and the “pay for browsing” model—where you pay the bookstore a fee if you browse the book at their store, but buy it at Amazon. I think both of these models are more likely to drive people away from bookstores.

One of the benefits of a physical store is that you don’t pay anything to browse and ask questions. It’s one of the values added, and true of any kind of store. I can stroll into a Mercedes-Benz dealer and sit in a convertible and walk out without paying. I understand the frustration of independent stores when people use an app to scan a bar code so they can possibly buy it cheaper on Amazon. But it feels a little to me like the record companies suing their customers (and how bad an idea was that?) to expect them to pay if they buy the book elsewhere.

Also, we need to continue to expand the definition of  “bookstore.” Obviously, most bookstores won’t be  “just” bookstores. In fact, books may not be the primary function of the store, but that won’t mean they’re not bookstores. What each store offers other than books will depend on the owners—how smart are they? How in touch are they with what their local community needs?

The physical store allows a community to be built around events and activities, and that is more potent than an online community. Sure, I’m in an online community of Wheaten Terrier owners, but talking online and sharing pictures with someone from Norway is just not the same as sitting in a room with your physical neighbors. I would not have pictured a bookstore offering a camp, but kudos to the owner of that store in Austin.

Like everything else in our industry it will require ingenuity, flexibility and the ability to adapt on the go to succeed.

So now that you’ve made it to the end of this blog post, don’t you think you should go out to a bookstore? But wait! Before you do, tell me how you envision the bookstore of the future.

• This post originally appeared on the website of Book Business magazine, a TeleRead sister-publication.