The Bookstore of the Future is… a Tree Museum?

Against Banned Books by florian.b
Against Banned Books by florian.b

“I would be the most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.”
Anna Quindlen

GalleyCat had a provocative post last week, “Is This the Bookstore of Tomorrow?“, spotlighting novelist Moriah Jovan’s anti-septic floorplan anchored by two Espresso machines (POD, not coffee) surrounded by workstations for searching and ordering books, with a corner kiosk for demoing eReaders, and a cash register.

Most notably, there’s not a single printed book in sight.

In her original post, “The Perfect Bookstore“, Jovan cheekily notes that her concept is going to “help [publishers and booksellers] solve all [their] problems”, derisively adding that the 2nd floor of this revolutionary bookstore “could house a coffee shop or used books or books that you wanted to order to keep in stock…”

Never mind the technophiliac focus on the Espresso (a large and expensive piece of machinery), or that eBooks currently represent only 1-2% of total annual book sales; Jovan’s approach completely misses the underlying appeal, and most sustainable premise, of a bookstore: it’s a real-life gathering place for a community.

They took all the trees
Put ’em in a tree museum
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see ’em

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Big Yellow Taxi, Joni Mitchell

Personal experience is purely anecdotal and highly suspect, of course, but I believe that news of the death of the printed word has been grossly exaggerated. Newspapers are pretty much dead, yes, but books and niche magazines are still alive and well, and as convenient as the Internet is for shopping, that’s not the primary reason people go online.

The Internet isn’t a shopping mall; it’s a virtual town square, and people mainly go online to pass time, for education, and to connect with others. People DO go to bookstores to shop, though, but if the bookstore is well-designed, they also go to pass time, for education, and to connect with others. Hell, bookstore (and library) shelves were the original world wide web browser!

It’s probably no coincidence that the kids section at both Barnes & Noble and the Montclair Book Center (my local indie of choice) are the most welcoming, brightly lit spaces in the store, inviting kids to touch the books, read them, and ultimately enticing them to want to buy something.

On. Every. Single. Visit.

My kids, 6 and 8 years old, are both voracious readers of BOOKS, despite both knowing their way around the Internet (they love and, for games and videos) and the presence of a Kindle in our house. One of my son’s favorite series of books, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, has “more than 20 million books in print, and the series remains on numerous bestseller lists.” Another favorite, Scholastic’s 39 Clues, integrates books, collectible cards, and an online game into an engaging multi-media experience that’s “attracted more than 500,000 online game users from 191 countries.”

Notably, neither series of books is available on the Kindle.

Since moving to New Jersey last summer, I’ve seen two Kindles on my daily commute, ever, while books, magazines, smartphones and earphones abound. eReaders will undoubtedly grow in popularity, but the Kindle is akin to the Laserdisc, an intriguing blip on the timeline that leads to the iPhone/iTouch (Blu-Ray?) and far, far beyond. eReaders, though, will not replace books anymore than VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray players replaced movie theatres.

I don’t love the book:movie analogy, but it works a little better than the book:music analogy when polishing off the crystal ball:

  • Blockbusters will still warrant their bazillion-copy hardcover print runs, complemented by strategically staggered releases in other formats, including eBooks.
  • Coffee Table “art books” will still be targeted to their niche outlets, with limited eBook appeal.
  • Niche books will go trade paperback or mass-market, depending on genre, while direct-to-eBook becomes the norm for most low-selling genres (poetry, comic books), as well as the primary outlet for unproven and mid-list authors.

Like movie theatres, bookstores provide a unique experience that cannot be duplicated at home or online, and as home and online viewing of movies became more convenient and affordable (or free), theaters had to improve the experience they offered to stay viable. As a result, we now have better seating, better food, online ticketing, digital sound, IMAX, etc.

Jovan’s vision of the future would be like AMC Theaters becoming Blockbuster stores, a distribution model Netflix destroyed.

The bookstore of the future will undoubtedly have to leverage new technologies like the Espresso and eReaders, not to mention diversifying themselves beyond just selling books, but the key to their sustainability will be defining a clear, viable niche to serve and serving it well. While Barnes & Noble, Borders, et al, will have to go the full AMC IMAX route to sustain themselves, independent bookstores would be better served looking to the Angelika Film Center as their model, while improving and touting the importance of their connection to their local communities.

That’s what MY ideal bookstore of the future, the one I’m hoping to own one of these days, looks like.

What’s yours look like?

7 thoughts on “The Bookstore of the Future is… a Tree Museum?

  1. wow. i totally disagree. I think Moriah's model is a salvation to the community aspect of bookstores. It implies readers/book buyers are visiting the bookstore specifically for: a. the expertise of the bookseller, and b. the community of fellow book lovers.
    The beauty is – it's NOT like the Blockbuster model at all. It's a physical brick and mortar manifestation of the netflix model. If one jumps ahead to the possible future where all titles currently available as print are also available via ebook and espresso/POD – there are no limitations to how such a gathering place could serve book loving communities. This model perfectly pairs the knowledge of a community bookseller with full access to any/all titles their customers could ever want while providing a place for the community to gather.
    Plus, it eliminates shipping costs, warehousing, returns, and other not-so-perfect parts of the current book industry model.
    I'm all for it. I think it's brilliant. I think it's a win-win, or could be. What I like best about it is the model recognizes the importance of, and provides a viable way to support the booksellers/book sales reps: who could be better referred to as book concierges in such a model. Those individuals who have incredible amounts of knowledge about books and their communities can continue to provide their invaluable services in a store such as Moriah envisions. Authors can continue to do events at such a store. Book Groups can continue to have book group gatherings.
    I luv it.

  2. I agree. Bookshops should contain books not machines for making books. I spend a lot of time in second hand book stores, sometimes I just go in to take deep breaths and smell the books. And think about all the humans who have pondered and been entertained by those amazing objects. A book is so much more than the text it contains. My ideal bookstore would be a chaos of books overflowing the shelves and a small, regular, equally obsessed clientelle/community.

  3. “Book concierge” is a nice notion, but it's an empty digital buzzword for something that already exists in almost every independent bookstore of note in the country. And replicating the benefits of an online model in a brick-and-mortar store while eliminating the unique benefits of that physical presence… it's highly illogical, Captain!

    Jovan's model primarily appeals to the Cult of Steve Jobs who think Apple Retail Stores are an innovative retail concept instead of just being a smartly executed brand extension. I don't believe it translates to books, though; as an addition to a B&N or Borders, perhaps, but definitely not for the typical indie bookseller.

  4. Don't get me wrong; I think there's a place for an Espresso machine in bookstores, but having them be the focus, the primary source of all available printed product in the store… that makes no sense to me. It's a complementary technology, allowing for more selective inventory without risking losing a sale to special order requests.

  5. It's not a bookless bookstore that MoJo has proposed, though. It worries me when discussions about utilizing new publishing technologies become polarizing arguments where one must supposedly choose: paper or plastic.

    There are complex issues involved, not the least of which is – book publishing as an industry is facing a very real threat of economic implosion.

    Without incorporating new solutions to both the production and distribution of books (and I use the term “books” rather loosely and without prejudice), readers and authors are going to find a void where there used to be publishers and booksellers and libraries and all the other facilitators who have for quite a long time been getting the content from the creators to their audience.

    There's no one solution that is going to work. And the beauty of it is, many solutions working together means a diversity of content, a diversity of distribution, and a diversity of formats. One need not eschew the handbound letter press book in order to enjoy a digitally delivered novella on their iphone. But, the economic reality calls for open minded consideration of options. One size does not fit all — and that's a good thing.

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