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I had occasion recently to spend a long time wandering my local big name bookstore. This is normally something I really like to do and this time was no different. Still…something was off.

It was a busy Friday afternoon. Lots of people coming in: seniors, college kids, teens, children and their parents. They were everywhere: fiction, non fiction, science fiction, kid’s books, videos. All departments were hopping. One teenager spent FOREVER in the graphic novel section. Yay! A book and mortar bookstore thrives!

But here’s the thing…

No one was buying.

Well, a few people did.

Not many though.

And nobody even looked at the guy manning the e-book reader counter.

There were a couple other, bored-looking employees at the registers. One of them, desperate for something to do, kept shuffling over to straighten books.

At the help desk, a Scottish-sounding gentleman was asking about books on, appropriately enough, Scottish law. The man was there a really long time, looking more and more defeated and the employees on the phone and computer were becoming more and more exasperated. If that guy gave up and left and got on the Internet, he’d probably find what he wanted in no time. And the store would lose a sale. But that’s exactly what was going to happen.

It struck me there had to be a better way. How cool would it be if instead of just the hourly employee who happens to work in the store because she likes books, the store had a real-life librarian on staff? I mean a professional researcher with access to phones and computers and knowledge who could then give the customer a list of potential titles. The service would be free. If the title was available for sale by this retailer, great. If not, well, a little free advice makes goodwill that could become a sale later.

But they didn’t do that. I actually don’t know what happened with the Scottish guy, but I suspect he bought elsewhere. And the employees shrugged. Oh well.

Except not, “oh well.” “Oh, well,” makes stores go out of business. Bookstores these days are nothing more than a warehouse for books; big rooms with shelving and overpriced coffee. Problem is, lots of customers can make pretty good coffee at home for less and you can’t find cheaper shelving than on the Internet. Bookstores have a problem and, as far as I can tell, they aren’t doing much to fix it.

The customer who has a specific need, like my Scottish friend (Sorry, I just really like the accent. Also, it makes me think of David Tennant, which makes me think of “Doctor Who”, and I get all happy.) is one problem. As for the more casual browser, like me that Friday afternoon, the tactile book experience is a point in favor of brick and mortar, but there were many times that day when I was looking at a book and suddenly missing being able to get “extra features” like I could on the Internet – reviews, author interviews, whatever – right there and then before I buy. Some bookstores (not this one!) have terminals so customers can search book inventory. Why not set up touch pads around the store to give us access to that other stuff? A lot of bookstore websites already have those things on there. Just give us a way to see it in your physical store too. That would make me more inclined to buy now rather than hold off to order later from someone else.

Despite the chatter of (non-buying) customers, the store felt really quiet. Wouldn’t it be great – or at least arouse curiosity – if there was a book reading going on in one corner by an author, a fan, young or old? Maybe some local actors could stage a scene in another corner. You can’t get that online. You COULD get it in stores.

But they don’t do that either.

And I’m starting to notice it more.

The store’s board game section seems to have expanded over time. It may sound like heresy, but I don’t know that this is necessarily a bad thing. Games are fun, challenging, a good way to interact with other actual humans. Why couldn’t  bookstore host a game night? Or events where new games are introduced? The Geek & Sundry site sponsors a web-based show called Tabletop hosted by actor Wil Wheaton. Each episode features a new board game with a brief explanation how to play it and then you can watch people do just that. Sounds boring (I was skeptical too), but turns out it’s a lot of fun to watch. Why couldn’t bookstores do something like that? Gets people in the store. That’s the goal, right?

You’re my friend, bookstore. I don’t like to see you suffer. Please take care of yourself. For all of us.


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  1. yeltnuh on said:

    Your ideas for improving/changing the ways to sell books are great. I, too, have wondered why there seems to be such resistance to altering the traditional methods. Perhaps people still see the reading world divided into “electronic” versus “print”? If so, I think that’s a great pity.

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