Last week’s announcement that Borders would close 200 stores across the country might have seemed to some the inevitable next step in the publishing industry’s conversion from printed to digital media. As more and more Americans choose to order books online, or to switch to e-books, they don’t need to patronize physical bookstores any longer.
But any sales person ought to know that need and want are two different things.
I can find a much larger selection of books by firing up my Web browser than heading over to my local Borders, which is among those scheduled to close. I don’t need that Borders in order to find and buy the books which interest me.
But, as an enthusiastic reader, I want to have an excuse to get out of the house once in a while and spend some time alone with fresh books and magazines. My middle-school, book-worm daughter wants a place to hang out with her friends after school. No, we don’t need a physical place to buy books any longer, but we want that alternative.
Borders seems to have made the same mistake as countless other old media publishers and retailers have over the past decade – viewing digital and print as two separate products and businesses, rather than finding a way to naturally blend the two. So I’d like to devote this post to a thought exercise: How to design a physical bookstore for the 21st century – one that would survive and profit in a marketplace driven by digital media?
Physical bookstores offer two advantages, that I see, over virtual ones. First is the out-of-home, social experience of being in a bookstore. While that’s not always a plus for people who want to download a book in a hurry, plenty of us enjoy being in a physical space with other book lovers.
The second is the ability to sit down and read through as much of any book as we want before deciding to buy. That’s the element I think a 21st century bookstore needs to find a way to replicate.
Imagine entering a store where there are no (or very few) books on the shelves, but an open WiFi network that allowed you to connect to and read, watch, play and listen to that store’s entire inventory of books, newspapers, magazines, games, movies, TV shows and recordings. So long as you physically remained within range of that network, you could read and watch all you want, but nothing would stay on your device after you left unless you purchased it.
Any WiFi-enabled smart phone, tablet, laptop, gaming device or e-reader could access this network. When you opened it, you’d see a welcome screen that would list options to browse national bestsellers in several categories, or to see the local bestsellers from that location. You could click to see new releases, selected by the store’s national editors, or local releases from authors and artists in your community.
From the welcome screen, you could search the store’s entire inventory, or browse by media type, topic and author or artist, as if you were walking the stacks in a physical store.
The physical space would be an attractive mix of comfortable chairs, with some gathered around tables. To one side would be a glass wall and doors, behind which stood a meeting room where local book or gaming clubs could gather. Off to the other side would be a children’s area, with smaller tables and chairs, attractive decor and a daily story time, aimed at infants, toddlers or early readers at regular times during the week.
Along the far wall from the entrance would be a cafe, serving coffee, tea, snacks and light meals throughout the day and evening. In the afternoons and evenings, the cafe would serve an English tea – not only to distinguish itself from other bookstore coffeeshops with a unique product to market, but as an efficient way to divvy up and move unsold scones, pastries and sandwiches from the morning, clearing space for the next day’s delivery of freshly baked food.
The store would enforce a strict “headphones only” policy for visitors sampling digital media. But it would play selected new audio releases over its sound system. Visitors could see what was playing (and what was coming up next) either by looking up at promotional monitors around the store, or by visiting the network welcome page. One click to buy. :^)
Each store would have an active chat network, too, available to all visitors on the network. (I’m stealing this idea from Virgin America, which does this on its airplanes.)
You would check out by selecting items into your virtual shopping cart and paying with a credit card. Digital downloads would be available immediately. Printed material would be available if in stock, but likely would be shipped to your home or preferred address. If you wish to pay cash or physically swipe a card, a store employee would be available to assist. The employee would also be on the chat network at all times, answering questions and ensuring that no one gets profane or abusive. And every hour on the hour, the employee would suggest a new release for folks on the network to sample – with a discount if they buy within the hour.
Obviously, if a business is going to make the effort to build this digital database and online storefront, it would make it available to people outside its physical stores through a global online storefront. But those online customers would not have the full browsing capabilities that folks in the stores would have. (Nor would they have access to the chat network, the cafe or local in-store events.)
By maintaining a physical presence in the community, and by hosting story times for young families and cultivating local book and gaming clubs, this 21st century book seller would be growing its market in ways that online-only book sellers can’t. It would meet the need for a physical bookstore in a smaller (and therefore, presumably less expensive) location and do so without the expense of maintaining large local inventories. It would expand the market for e-books and digital media by allowing for freer sampling, while minimizing free riders since consumers would need to come to the physical store in order to enjoy that benefit.
Certainly, obstacles stand in the way. Programming an interface that would support all smart phones, tablets and e-readers presents a significant logistical challenge. That interface would have to be able to stream e-books to visitors on the store’s network as others now stream movies and audio. And the store would need to get rights clearances from all the publishers it sells.
But, wow, I totally would ditch my local coffeeshop for this place, if it existed. And I’d be sampling – and buying – far more media than I do now from my local Borders. With unlimited access to digital media, this would become the go-to place for LA-area professional writers looking for a comfy place to crash with a laptop and get some work done. (Buh-bye Starbucks!)
Of course, I mention Starbucks intentionally, because what’s to keep a coffee chain such as that from adopting this model to branch out further into digital media sales?
As publishers, having a large and diverse collection of retailers promoting and selling our products helps our chances for financial success. Especially for local and start-up publishers, having local bookstores cultivating a community of local readers creates opportunities that global online storefronts can’t. I don’t want to be stuck in market where Amazon and Apple control the global distribution of books and magazines. Nor do I trust those – or any two global companies – to recruit the next generation of readers if they have no physical presence in local communities.
While it’s nice to daydream as a consumer about the type of bookstore I want to see in my neighborhood, for publishers, a functional 21st-century physical bookstore isn’t just a want, it’s something we will continue to need.