Sunday, April 20, 2014

What's the Future of Bookstores?

Everyone knows that Borders Books went out of business a couple of years back.  Barnes & Noble, for all its protestations to the contrary, hasn't been faring so well these days.  There are a few Books-A-Million left, but they're getting harder to find.  So what will remain in a few years?

Don't get me wrong - Amazon and the indie movement have revolutionized the book industry.  However, as I've written before, browsing online can only do so much for a reader's.  I love to look through the shelves and maybe sit in a café while sampling the latest works, deciding if buying is the right way to go.  Unfortunately, the ability to do this is getting harder.  I don't see it going away, but what does that mean the bookstore of the future will look like?

Hugh Howey has an idea.  His recent post on Bella's Bookshop is a virtual wish list for what a great bookstore would look like nowadays.  I must admit that it's fabulous, but I have to wonder how realistic it is.  The fantastical world Howey describes would require a tremendous investment of time and capital, as well as that rare individual to pull it off.  It describes everything from a set of shelves devoted exclusively to indie content, to an area for writers to churn out their latest works.  Put in a knowledgeable staff to answer questions, and you have bookstore Nirvana.

Not to be a cynic, but I don't think it works in the real world, or at least not on the scale we'd like.  Sure, there are stores like the ones described in Hugh's post, but they're rare, and they're certainly not set up to be in most towns the way Barnes & Noble was at the beginning.  For all our stomping up and down about it, true book lovers are rare, or at least rare enough that it takes a large metropolitan area to support a store like the one both Hugh and I would like to see.

That doesn't mean, however, that there aren't some things that we can push for.  The biggest thing I'd like to see is for more of our local shops to devote more space to indie works.  That should probably start out locally.  That way the store owner can get to know the writer better and become more familiar with his or her work.  The writer could then give the store some time to interact with readers and build a rapport.

Along the way, the store could bring in some work from outside the local area.  Of course, this would be based on the willingness of the writer to come in and support the store at least on occasion(what, you didn't think this would all be on the store, did you?).  A symbiotic relationship would emerge where stores and writers could help each other in the quest for sales.  Smaller stores in less populated areas have trouble bringing in bigger name talent to speak and interact, and indie writers could help bridge that gap.  This is not to say that those stores would eliminate bigger names and traditionally published works, but rather that indie works and interaction could augment what's already there.  These shops could network to "share" indie writers, and the pie would thus expand for everybody.

Yes, I'm a one step at a time kind of guy, which is why I think this is the avenue to go to first.  Hugh's idea, while appealing, is, to me, the end state, and one that must be gauged realistically.  I'm not sure that in anything less than a major metropolis a person such as Hugh desires exists, or at least not one that would be in business long since the population wouldn't support it.  It would take an extraordinary person to create what Hugh describes, but I think it would take a shrewd businessman to make the first leap into expanding further into the indie market.  Only time will tell.

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