Back to the future with bookstores

The old saying, “History repeats itself” seems to be true in the recent history of book selling.

When the big chain stores of Borders and Barnes & Noble moved into town, the local independent bookstores all quaked in fear or squawked in high dudgeon about how the soulless giant franchises were ruining the business.

borders bookstore
Borders failed to compete with Amazon and has since filed for bankruptcy

But the chains taught the independents a valuable lesson: that some books were a commodity. The price and availability of New York Times bestsellers was more important than was the sales clerk’s expertise.

The weaker independents closed their doors while the big chains grew fat and happy. The surviving independents continued to disparage the big chains, but the chains delivered a better experience. They added cafes, benches where you could read for hours, and offered a much larger selection of books.

Then the World Wide Web came along, and after some initial jockeying for position, Amazon emerged as the Internet bookseller to beat. Now the shoe was on the other foot. The big chains squawked in righteous rectitude about how they couldn’t compete with a company that didn’t need to invest in bricks and mortar.

But Amazon taught the chains a valuable lesson: That all books were commodities if you already knew what book you wanted, and it was easier to purchase online, and the online vendors could stock far more titles. What’s more, the supporting information on the Web was far more valuable than anything a harried, youthful sales clerk could offer.

Both Borders and Barnes & Noble took huge body blows as the new business model assaulted them, but the Web delivered a better experience. Barnes & Noble created their own online presence and has managed to stay in the game. Borders, however, not only failed to grasp their role in their brick-and-mortar world, but they foolishly gave their online business to Amazon, and so filed for bankruptcy last month.

It seems to me, with the exception of Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, the players in this little historical reenactment are unclear about their role, and keep trying to read from someone else’s script. Bezos appears to be the only person with a firm grasp on what he does for a living, and selling books is not it.

Jeff Bezos sells customer service. Amazon is attentive, easy, and the answer is always "Yes" to whatever question a customer might ask. Returns? Sure. Availability? No problem. Free shipping? That can be arranged. The only thing Amazon can’t provide to the customer is a warm, well-lighted nook, surrounded by good books, knowledgeable staff, author signings, good wireless Internet access, and a cup of cappuccino.

And right there, in a nutshell, is the solution for the brick-and-mortar crowd: provide the customer with the things that Amazon simply cannot provide, and offer it with the same level of exquisite customer service that the Bezos Army does.

Keplers bookstore
Keplers bookstore in Menlo Park, CA has fought off online competition with great service and customer loyalty

The local independent bookstore can’t compete with Amazon on selection and availability, so don’t bother. If I owned a small bookstore, I’d put several computer kiosks right in the middle of the store, permanently connected to Amazon. If, while sitting around sipping a macchiato and talking to a friend, you learn of some interesting book, you can turn to the computer and instantly research it, and then order it.

Rather than seeing Amazon’s strength as competitive, brick-and-mortar stores should see it as liberating: they no longer have to maintain such a large, expensive inventory of books or maintain distributor relationships to order requested books.

Instead, the local store can offer something unique and desirable: a physical place for readers to go where they are supported and welcome, and where the books on view are personally selected, intimately displayed, and available for perusal. No internet company can provide that.

No physical store is ever going to compete successfully with an Internet-based company on breadth of selection and encyclopedic knowledge. So physical stores that want to survive will offer the things that the Internet cannot provide.

A brick-and-mortar bookstore should be a designed to be the greatest place for a bibliophile to be, rather than the best place to purchase books, which is only one of the things that readers wish to do.

Many readers want a comfortable place filled with books where they can socialize with other readers. They want to find out about good books that are worth reading, and to share their enthusiasm for good books that they have discovered. They want to talk to others about books they have read, or things they have learned from books. Readers love to look at books, hold books, browse books, experience books. Buying them is not necessarily the central act of loving books.

A book lover’s haven would be like a clubroom or cafe, warm, inviting, with good lighting and soft chairs, strong wireless internet support, and many book shelves of fascinating, wide-ranging titles. Yes, there would be books for sale, but the main focus of the store wouldn’t be to sell books but to make book buyers happy.

Obviously, this requires a different business model, but that isn’t such a crazy idea. After all, buying books online is a new business model. I don’t know what that model would be, but I can imagine some viable candidates:

  1. Visitors pay a modest cover charge when they enter.
  2. Visitors pay a monthly fee, like a fitness club.
  3. Book publishers could subsidize the store.
  4. Revenue comes from sales of coffee, snacks, and internet access (the Starbucks model).

In addition, the store could generate revenue from several other new activities that haven’t existed before. These could include:

  1. A concierge service to receive and hold shipments of books for readers who aren’t at home during the day and cannot receive shipments at work.
  2. Most books today are ebooks, and the store could download them faster for a fee.
  3. The equivalent of Apple’s Genius Bar, where, for a small fee, an expert would help the customer fix or adjust their Kindle, iPad, or other eReader.
  4. One of the best things about local brick-and-mortar bookstores is that they can host special bibliophile events. Author signings, book clubs, and publisher presentations can all be lucrative events for an enterprising store. These are not new ideas, but charging for them is.

What is different is that the bookstore is now not making the majority of its revenue from the sales of books. Instead, it’s making money from being a great place for book aficionados to gather and be physically present.

Lending libraries used to provide a similar service. The card catalog was a resource for research, and the reference librarian could always arrange an inter-library transfer if the obscure volume you needed was in the next county. As a child and young man, I remember spending many delightful hours in various public libraries. Only relatively recently have I found myself whiling away my bibliophile hours in bookstores instead of libraries. Maybe what we are seeing is a back-to-the-future return to the library along with the decline of the retail bookstore.

I won’t mind losing the old brick-and-mortar bookstore as long as the benefits it delivered are still readily available. It would only be another example of history repeating itself.

Alan Cooper
Alan Cooper

Alan Cooper is the co-founder of Cooper and a pioneer of the modern computing era. He created the programming language Visual Basic and wrote industry-standard books on design practice like “About Face.”

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