Imagining the 21st century's digital bookstore

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.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. says:


    I love your vision of the 21st century digital bookstore and agree with most everything you said:
    Yes, we can find books online.
    But yes, we want to have a place to hang out and read books that is not our home.
    And yes, we want to sample the books before we buy.

    Did you know that Barnes & Noble is basically doing this already (if you have a Nook), except that they still have a lot of print books on shelves and in stock?

  2. The closest B&N to me is a cramped, understocked store that I rarely visit.

    But I think that, to be most successful, a store such as this must be open to all e-reading platforms, as well as to other digital media, including games.

    I think that the presence of games in the inventory, as well as a room that can host game clubs, is essential in bringing in young consumers, who can be exposed to more reading through their presence in the store.

    And, to really make the economics of this work, the emphasis needs to move from physical books to digital media. By allowing people with any device to access the store network, the retailer can make that switch more aggressively, so that it won’t be caught behind the market transition to digital media.

  3. says:

    No one likes book retailing better than I do. I’ve been in the business for most of my life and I’m now a consultant. Your vision of a bookstore is right on! But I wonder if it could really compete in todays market and survive. Most people do not understand the overhead and investment it takes to survive in today economy. THE MAJOR PROBLEM is that the supply chain for books is changing just like it did in music when it changed to digital. You can produce and sell a digital book without a publisher online. The pricing of digital needs to take into consideration selling in a retail outlet like you have discribed for it to exist. Then you still have to keep up with the latest technology to keep your store revelent. It is suggested that somewhere between 25% and 50% of the books will go digital within the next 3 to 5 years. All of this takes investment that needs to be supported by retail sales and online sales. Which do you think has the least overhead? Online! Most consumers are not willing to pay extra for a retail environment like you are discribing. In the next ten years you will probably be hard pressed to find a bookstore chain left unless it is on line selling digital and print on demand.

  4. says:

    Nice idea, but I can sample any ebook now in the comfort of my home. I don’t see driving somewhere to sample ebooks.

    Your idea caters to the idea of people coming in and spending a couple of hours in the store. It makes no sense for someone who simply wants to find a book and go home and read it, which is the majority of customers.

    What you’re describing is what libraries are becoming. You go in and spend time there. They have computers you can use or wifi otherwise. They have growing ebook collections (that can be checked out from your home). And they sponsor group activities, have meeting rooms, have DVDs and even computer and videogames available for checkout.

    Let me put this to you: Do you believe in this vision enough that you would invest your money in it? Barnes and Noble lets you come in and use your Nook to read any ebook they sell for one hour. They have the coffee bar. They have tables that groups can reserve for discussions. They have game nights.

    You can buy their stock and invest in them.

  5. says:

    ‘By maintaining a physical presence in the community, and by hosting story times for young families and cultivating local book and gaming clubs’

    You mean “by performing all the functions served by your local public library”? And you don’t even have to pay for books there! 😉

    That aside, it’s a nice idea in theory, but I’ve yet to see a search engine that does a respectable job of duplicating the “browsing the shelves” experience.

  6. Again, I don’t have a Nook. I have an iPad. My wife has a Kindle. Bookstores that apply this technology only to their proprietary systems are sacrificing potential market share.

    Furthermore, the Nook can’t play movies, audio files or games – all essential digital media to such a store.

    Bookstores don’t sell only one publisher’s books. Nor should they support only one manufacturer’s device. B&N is trying to promote its e-reader, not to establish a 21st century bookstore. Ultimately, that will prove a fatal mistake.

    Such as store, with its emphasis on local artists and authors, would encourage and enable independent e-publishers, while providing them access to a large chain of stores and a global online storefront. (Assuming such a store is part of a chain, and not an indie such as Powell’s Books in Portland – the biggest example I know of an indie with its own online storefront.)

    As for the comments about libraries, my local library doesn’t support digital media at all. Nor does it allow food and drink. 🙂 I’m sure there’s a model for a 21st century library branch, but I’ll leave that for another column….

  7. says:

    I think the solution, if one realistically exists, is to think about combining the services of the bookstore and library. So, you might be able to purchase some of the commercial services currently offered by bookstores (cafe, ever-more-prevalent-loosely-book-related knick-knack products) with the (by-and-large free) community services offered by your library.

    As for B&N, their in-store book and music selections are visibly dwindling, given the greater digital push and their own Nook offering. I think this has become more noticeable recently because they were well behind Amazon and Apple in the e-reader market, and, after realizing their disadvantage, are now in almost manic catch-up mode.

    One of the best things about well-staffed bookstores is knowledgeable service (not always available from library volunteers, though I commend and value them) and advice. Nevertheless, we’re romanticizing the bookstore the way some people romanticize travel by rail. A “solution” will likely be temporary – a way to stave off digital replacement of something we’re reluctant to let go. I lament along with you, but our laments will likely be buried by the current and coming generations.

  8. says:

    Eh, I think you have to look no further than the music industry to get a blueprint for what is likely to happen with books.

    Digital downloads wiped out record store chains. All we have left are a few specialty record stores, often ones that sell a lot of used CDs.

    Interestingly, last I looked CD sales of music still made up the majority of sales at about 60%. Thing is, these sales are coming from the big box stores — Wal-Mart, Target, Sam’s. These places also sell books.

    I see the bookstores closing eventually. People are not going to drive to a store to buy a digital download. I think it’s silly to even think that. You’re trying to think of ways that bookstores can survive instead of coming up with reasons why they will be needed when digital books are widely in use.

    Is there a reason why we will need bookstores? I honestly can’t think of one if I have switched to ebooks.

  9. says:

    “Furthermore, the Nook can’t play movies, audio files or games – all essential digital media to such a store.”

    The Nook color can.

    Further, that iPad you have will only play games designed for it. It won’t play Android games, for example, or the Windows games I might want to play on the laptop I bring to the store. It’s not as if you will walk into the bookstore of the future with your tablet and be able to access everything they sell. There’s no universal hardware standard and no monolithic software OS like Windows.

    So no, I don’t think Barnes and Noble are short-sighted in developing and selling their own e-reader. Did you see how well the Nook color sold this Christmas? You can still walk into a Barnes and Noble with your iPad and buy epub versions of books from them with the Barnes and Noble app.

    I’ll say this again: You need to come up with an argument for why consumers need local bookstores. What is it they can do that the online retailers cannot do, and why is that need vital enough to drive sales and keep local bookstores in business.

    I can’t think of a single reason beyond servicing the market that loves printed books and will refuse to switch to ebooks, and even there Amazon offers quick delivery of same.

  10. Hey Robert,
    I completely agree with you regarding the future of the bookstores. Books are for literature what VHS are for movies : just a format.

    The digital era is basically splitting for every type of media the “content” from the “box”. I will love to see the next moves of those strong online properties (i.e. Google, Facebook) owning digital visibility and not online book visiblity/credibility.

    Probably we will soon see a drastic improvement of Google Books (i.e. deep “hardcoded” integration in their search results for example).

  11. Very interesting and timely article. I have worked with books for 15 years. I have seen many changes in the book business. The changes seen now are becoming widespread and will change the way we buy and read books from now on. Yes, everyone and their brother have e-readers now. Even many people who probably should not have them. I encounter people every single day who do not have the patience or the desire to “learn”how to use their reader. But most people use their reader as a great alternative to reading a print book. They use them for traveling or borrowing from the library if it is a Nook or compatible electronic reader.

    What I will say to all those book lovers who so enjoy visiting the sanctuary of the brick and mortar stores is that the way to keep these buildings alive is to purchase within the stores. Books can be bought from a bookseller and sent to your home enabling you to receive the benefit of the lower .com price. And you usually get free shipping. This is an awesome perk. So, when you are visiting your local store to just hang out, take advantage of their ordering online system and help to keep a local bookstore in business.

  12. Robert,

    I agree with your vision. I know some commenters were skeptical, but I think you can’t underestimate the need for “third places” not office, not home – where people can hang out.

    For someone who loves books, loves browsing physical books (regardless what format they eventually purchase the book), doesn’t enjoy hanging out in bars, your description of the 21st century digital bookstore could be a winner.

    Is this a business model that could result in consistent, growing sales for a publicly trade bookstore chain? I’m not sure.

    However, I think some inventive retailer could figure out a winning formula.