Okay, Borders has gone under. Barnes & Noble is struggling. Independent bookstores have been embattled for years.
I’m a fan of Amazon (and used to work there! they’re good folks! they paid my wages!). But I’m also a nostalgic person. If I can be misty-eyed about the end of Blockbuster, I’m certainly allowed to think fondly about all the time I’ve spent in bookstores. Out-of-the-way bookstores. Corporate behemoth bookstores. Waldenbooks at the mall. Airport “bookstores.” Antiquarian book shoppes. Garage sales. Library basements. Mystery-themed bookstores. Waterfront gift shops with a shelf of books about ships. Anything at all!
So maybe there’s no presently viable business model for a brick-and-mortar store. But there’s a hunger! And where there’s a hunger, there’s a fool ready to supply it.
Here’s what I would like:
Not just bestsellers. I will find John Grisham when I am in the mood. I don’t need a tower of his books shouting at me. I would much rather have things I am unlikely to find – like the handcrafted books of TinyToe. I SHOULD NOT FEEL LIKE I AM WALKING INTO AN ADVERTISEMENT. Not at a bookstore. Please.
FUN, FRESH IDEAS
Authors as bookstore volunteers – how cool is that? How about five hours a month in exchange for having a book on the shelf? (Every community has midlist or self-published authors willing to make that trade.) I’m much more likely to listen to a recommendation from someone who’s written a book than I am to someone who is staring at a computer monitor looking at sales rankings. And writers will benefit from the contact with readers.
Here’s another idea: Weekly No Phone Night. Everyone who arrives gets to store their devices in a locker. Everyone in the store will be focused on the books, those lovely physical objects, and what’s going on in their own minds. You get to be part of that group. It will feel like 1989 again. A great year.
Here’s another idea: a REAL kids area. Not some harried employee or author reading to fifteen restless kids while their parents stand there watching and pretending to smile and hoping their kid stays put for ten minutes. Run it like Ikea’s Smaland, where kids are supervised and safe and can read books (or not! they can jump around in the ballpit if they have too much energy for books at that moment). The point is that parents can spend thirty minutes or an hour BROWSING in the ADULTS SECTION. Parents need mental space. Parents need psychic recovery time. My Bookstore will supply it.
Not people sitting on the floor in the aisles, or at a “cafe” WITH MORE ADVERTISING. Real books. Real conversation. Real people.
USE THE INTERNET
I don’t mean put out displays of e-readers. I mean make it easy to read reviews and descriptions of books that are online. And even better – use the Internet’s ability to surface content. Make displays of books with top-ten lists from trusted sources. Let opinion (NOT JUST SALES) organize the books. If Alice Munro wins the Nobel Prize, sure, we’ll put her books on display. But we’ll also put on display books she’s mentioned in interviews, or books by authors who have cited Munro as an influence, or other creative ways to get our Alice Munro fix.
BOOKS AS PHYSICAL OBJECTS
Books are beautiful. Create displays that delight and surprise. Celebrate the appearance of books, especially the unusual, the profound, the curious, the artistic. Don’t ignore their tactile pleasures. Light them well. Make them look holy.
Membership should not be limited to discounts on bestsellers. Make the bookstore a place people want to be, and seek to provide the mental equivalent of a well-run fitness center. Give them a benefit to membership (like access to a more private room, or lending privileges, or free coffee) that encourages them to join. People will pay for the exclusivity – but don’t make it too exclusive. Make it affordable. Encourage companies to give their employees annual memberships as a holiday gift. With enough memberships, you won’t need to worry about not maximizing sales of bestsellers.
USE GUILT (THE RIGHT WAY)
Independent bookstores have attempted to make us feel guilty about shopping for books elsewhere. That never works. I will instead attempt to make people feel guilty about not spending enough time in My Bookstore, even if they buy their books at a chain or at Amazon. Again, the example of the gym is instructive. No one signs up for a gym membership because they feel guilty about belonging to one gym over another. They feel guilty about not exercising. My Bookstore will sell the one thing Amazon can’t: the idea that you are spending too much time online, and that it will be good for you – that you need – to be somewhere warm, and smart, and fun, and inspiring and real. You will feel better about coming here. My Bookstore will change your life for the better. Book purchases are a secondary consideration. You will come in once, look around, sigh, and say, Yes! I’m in!
So get cracking, young entrepreneur. My checking account awaits the pleasure of signing up. May we have a long, enjoyable, and monthly-recurring relationship.