On the survival of bookstores

Borders recently went out of business. In the wake of their demise, I saw one op/ed that argued that, for bricks and mortar bookstores (such as Barnes and Noble) to survive, they need to find a way to demonstrate the value they add in making real suggestions.

I am in Detroit, close to Ann Arbor, the home of the original Borders bookstore. One thing that always stood out about Borders’s hiring practices was that clerks had to pass a literature test to demonstrate that they knew something about books. I’m not sure if Borders kept that practice up to the day they closed. (ETA: Rob, who knows better than me on the subject, indicates that Borders dropped the book test some time ago. That’s unfortunate.)

Having informed clerks is an important added value, especially when Amazon and other online sources simply can’t be beaten on either pricing or stock availability. Amazon can make suggestions to me based on my previous purchases or my current search, but it doesn’t generally go very deep. If I’m buying vampire books and turn down The Vampire Lestat, Amazon might still suggest Queen of the Damned. I can tell a human bookseller that I’m not interested in Anne Rice books, but it’s far more difficult to explain to a computerized search algorithm why, precisely, I’ve turned down a particular suggestion.

The SNE, an association of French publishers, currently has a half-million-euro campaign to emphasize the importance of bookstores, and they’re using precisely that argument. The ad copy reads, “There are thousands of books available to me. Who’s going to help me make a good choice, if there are no more bookstores?”

It’s worth noting that SNE membership includes several major periodical publishers, who have a particularly vested interest in keeping brick-and-mortar avenues alive. Amazon doesn’t generally sell single copies of magazines, it sells subscriptions; I can’t even find any of those on the French version of the site, although there are some on the German site. Periodical publishers continue to take a hit from increasing movement towards the Internet; losing the impulse-purchase nature of bookstores leads to further erosion of that particular base.

I think this is a reasonable strategy. I use Amazon when I have a clear idea of the books that I want, and brick-and-mortars to get ideas of what’s available and also for impulse purchases. I’ll admit, due to the disparity between Amazon and Borders pricing on computer books specifically (generally a difference of $15-$20 per title), I did shop at Borders but buy at Amazon. I know other people used Borders’s free Wi-Fi to comparison shop at Amazon. Those behaviors obviously hurt Borders further.

Even so, though, I think that if brick-and-mortars are to survive, they have to make a compelling argument that they’re the place to go when you want to buy something but don’t know what, and that they’re worth rewarding for that with a purchase. I’m not sure they’ve been doing that of late, and this has further added to their problems.

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