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I love going to the bookstore.

But the way stores are run is all wrong.

Don’t get me wrong. For die-hards like me, there’s still  a feel, an atmosphere,  an electricity. There’s just something about wandering the bookstore, taking in all at once the literary potential to be informed, entertained or moved cannot be matched, no matter how good the website or how many “G” your app runs at. But I can feel it fading.

I’m not alone in this. It’s not news that physical bookstores are failing. The smell is almost as strong as the sweet smell of old books. The electric pulse is fizzling a little in the current climate.

Why is this happening?

Price, of course, is one reason. Financial times being what they are, its hard to justify plunking down $30 for the new hardcover Stephen King at the bookstore when you could get it for half that online.

But that’s not the whole story.

There are still enough purists and /or Amazon haters willing to pay full price. And there are even more people, like me, who happily – eagerly – go to the brick and mortar location.

But they’re not buying. Not much anyway. And the ones that are, well, they’re fading.

So if price isn’t solely to blame, what is it? What would make the holdouts part with their cash rather than flock to the Internet discount bin? Bookstores offer little more than the physical equivalent of Amazon’s catalog when they should be promoting the bookstore experience. There are so many things, besides coffee, physical stores can offer l, but aren’t,  or at least not enough. Here’s a few:

  • TOO MANY BOOKS.  That probably sounds weird coming from me, as both an avid reader and a writer of books. But there is a certain amount of sensory overload that can occur in a bookstore, especially a big chain store. It’s bad enough when you have one book in mind and go looking for that one, worse still when you don’t really know what you want. “But I like to browse,” You say. Sure you do. So do I. But browsing is often not the same thing as buying. Also, I’m not sure “too many” books is entirely the problem. Maybe what I should have said is…
  • BOOKSTORES PUSH THE WRONG BOOKS. If I’m sitting at home reading book reviews and I decide I want “The Hunger Games” or “Twilight” or whatever is hot right now, I’m probably not going to drive to the store and buy it. I’m going to open a new window on my computer and purchase it in a couple clicks, maybe as an e-book. But if I’m in the bookstore, the big titles are the only ones that get attentions. They get the space, they get the prominence. I’ll look at them there…then go home and order them. What bookstores should do to stand out, to offer service to the customer they maybe can’t get elsewhere, is to promote the stuff that right now gets crowded on the dingy shelves in the back: local interest books; the independently published books; maybe a bigger, more promintent, section with employee picks. Why not even throw in CUSTOMER picks? Make customers a part of the experience. That brings me to my next point.
  • MAYBE IN THIS NEW ERA OF BOOK SELLING, STORES NEED TO PUSH THE EXPERIENCE, NOT THE BOOKS. You can get books online, cheaper and (in the case of e-books especially), faster. If bookstores want to compete, maybe they need to stop simply setting up shelves and filling them with books. I can scroll through virtual shelves on the computer without, you know, even have to walk around. Maybe, instead, the bookstore should offer me something I can’t get at Amazon to entice me to (1) come into  he store and (2) buy. Things like (a) MORE BOOK SIGNINGS. Readers love having signed books. Authors (most) love to do it. It’s hard (so far) to sign an e-book. Seems obvious to me. Ditto (2) MORE READINGS.

Authors are thrilled when someone asks them to read. If you can’t get the author, get a staff member, get someone from the local theatre community to act out a scene (community theatre people love an excuse to get on stage), get retired folks, parents, teachers, whoever. All of this should be done with permission, of course, but I can’t imagine any publisher/author objecting to free advertising. There’s no reason there can’t be readings going on every hour a bookstore is open.

  • JUST BE MORE CREATIVE – THINK OUTSIDE THE COVER You store managers and executives need to match the creativity in the things you sell with your own creativity in selling them. Host more book clubs. Set up Lincoln-Douglas style debates between, I don’t know, Harry Potter fans and Game of Thrones fans. Bring in some historians from the local college to discuss that new biography. Big new legal thriller on the best seller list? Host a mock trial. Some hot, new kid’s book? Have kids in t0 design and build their own monster/robot/castle/whatever. Don’t just tell people you have the new book. We already know that. Tell us how you’re having fun with it and invite us to the party.

What it comes down to is this: bookstores can no longer just be a place that sells books. Just selling expensive coffee isn’t enough. Bookstores have to become places not just to get books, but to appreciate them. Revel in them. Roll around naked and fondle them. There should be so much stuff going on in your stores that selling books seems (almost) secondary. Make the book buying experience a full-on, tactile, hands-on, multi-media, sensory experience. You can’t get that from Amazon.

See you there. I hope.


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  1. We have a huge, 2 story Barnes and Noble that we frequent. But we don’t go to buy the books, we go to get Starbucks and browse. The “smell” and “feel” of a cup of coffee in that atmosphere make it appealing. Plus everytime I go down the escalator in the middle of the store, I imagine I am Tom Cruise in “Rain Man”. Does it every time!

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