More on the future of bookstores

A great article in last Friday's Globe and Mail, Will the last bookstore please turn out the lights?

The main thrust of the article is that while there's a lot of doom and gloom in the industry, there's also some hope and, more importantly, some innovation.

One source of Bleumer's optimism is the "ferocious" level of reading she sees going on among young people. Those ferocious readers will be the regular book buyers of the future. What stores need to do, she insists, is not only focus on old-fashioned face-to-face customer service, but also remain flexible enough to adapt to whatever comes along in the years to come.

Christopher Smith, manager of Ottawa's Collected Works, agrees with the notion that independent stores must evolve or die. He sees two streams of bookselling emerging. In one, bookstores will "transform themselves from mere book purveyors to cultural emporiums or meeting places." Each store will be a "place for minds and activity. ... In a way, the bookstore could be become the new 'salon'" - albeit a salon that offers not only books, but art, music, gift items, coffee and maybe even food and wine. In the other stream, he sees a "new breed of small, specialized book retailers. Bookstores selling books and books alone. Stores that focus on the 'classic' notion of what a bookshop is. Bespoke bookselling, so to speak."

Which isn't to say Smith doesn't have an eye on the e-horizon. He says he daydreams "that in the future I will finish a hand-sell by asking my customer, 'And how would you like that - hardcover, paperback, audio or e-book?'"

*snip*

But how do those same big-box retailers see the future?

Joel Silver, president of Indigo-Chapters as well as a member of board for Kobo, the e-book service and reader that recently partnered with Borders in the U.S., is, like most booksellers, reluctant to predict the shape of things to come. The industry, he says, "is completely dynamic right now." Silver states that, "the threat of the e-book is a very powerful tool to mobilize a lot of parties in the industry to some new and innovative things." All the same, he comes off like an idealistic indie when he talks about the enduring qualities of a bricks-and-mortar store: "There's a certain energy that a bookstore gives off if it's done well."

As long-time readers know, I've often tied the future of bookstores with libraries, which while not a perfect comparison is one I think has some validity. In this article I like the ideas of creating social learning and intellectual discovery spaces and tying that in with the notion of providing content in whatever container the patron find the most appropriate for their work.

It's exciting times in the book business and it'll be interesting to see how the players realign over the next few years. It's kind of like the way it was in the academic library business 10-15 years ago as the first big waves of web-based journals and databases came online.

The Globe has been running a very nice series on the bookstore business. Most of the articles are very interesting and well worth checking out. Once again, I think all same trends affecting bookstores have valuable implications for the library world. Here are links to the first four:

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Buy where you shop: Bookstores, libraries and intellectual locavores

Nice article by Vit Wagner in Sunday's Toronto Star, Tough times, but some bookstores have a different story.

A couple of different independent bookstore owners/managers in the Toronto area talk about some of the challenges faced in surviving and even thriving in what should be a period of death and decline for bricks and mortar bookstores.

But while some of the competition is retrenching or worse, BakkaPhoenix, which recorded a double-digit increase in sales last year, is expanding. In stark contrast to the recently shuttered This Ain't the Rosedale Library, BakkaPhoenix is readying a fall move from the Queen St. W. location it currently rents to the larger, two-storey Harbord St. digs it has purchased.

"One of the things we were looking for was space for our community," says Chris Szego, who has managed the store for the past decade. "We already have had science-fiction book clubs approach us to see if they can hold their meetings there.

"We want to schedule writing an reading workshops. That's something independent bookstores can be great at. We offer community."

*snip*

Joanne Saul, co-owner of Type Books, is similarly upbeat. While the small chain decided to cut its losses by closing its Danforth outlet last year, the company has expanded its two remaining stores on Queen St. near Trinity Bellwoods and on Spadina Rd. in Forest Hill. Sales slumped for much of 2009, Saul says, but picked up at Christmas and have remained buoyant through the spring.

"A successful independent bookstore has to completely and utterly cater to its community," says Saul. "That's something we strive to do by getting engaged with the schools near us, offering literacy programs, having weekly story time for neighbourhood preschoolers. You have to make those connections with people who support you. It's a two-way street."

*snip*

Glad Day, the landmark gay and lesbian themed bookseller, issued in an appeal for financial support in the spring. Its future remains uncertain.

"Things have improved a little bit but it's not beyond what we'd expect for the season, given that we're coming up to Pride Week," says owner John Scythes. "It's touch and go right now. I've had a few nice orders from academia, but that won't run the store. The walk-in trade hasn't changed. People come and browse here and then go home and order the book on the net."...

"I can't blame people," says Scythes. "It's the kind of culture we've created. But is it worth it if the consequence is destroying retail book selling?"

*snip*

Taking an entirely different approach is Marc Glassman, the former proprietor of Pages Books & Magazines. Driven off Queen St. W. last year by escalating rents, the veteran bookseller has rebranded his business as Pages Beyond Bricks & Mortar.

Glassman has continued to sell books through This is Not a Reading Series, the program of regular author events he runs mainly out of the Gladstone Hotel. And, following the model established by New York's Mobile Libris, he is setting up shop at other events, including the recent Luminato and Subtle Technologies festivals. He has a contract to sell books and DVDs at this year's Toronto International Film Festival.

Very cool and very interesting and reminiscent of the article my friend Claude Lalumière wrote a while back that I blogged about, The Bookstore of the Future.

Tim O'Reilly's classic post Buy Where You Shop is probably the best encapsulation of why it makes sense to support local businesses. For many classes of products and services, they provide a kind of value for local shoppers that's hard to duplicate online. Using local business for browsing and research while buying online for price is unsustainable.

A few months ago, I was talking with one of my most loyal retail customers, a specialty computer bookstore in Massachusetts. "We survived the chains, and we survived Amazon," he said, "but I don't know if we're going to survive the online discounters. People come in here all the time, browse through the books on display, and then tell me as they leave that they can get a better price online."

Now, you might say, as the Hawaiian proverb notes, no one promised us tomorrow. Businesses, like individuals and species, must adapt or die. And if the Internet is bad for small, local retailers, it's good for the online resellers and it's good for customers, right?

But think a little more deeply, and you realize that my friend wasn't complaining that people were buying books elsewhere. He was complaining that people were taking a service from him--browsing the books in his store--and then buying elsewhere. There's a world of difference between those two statements. Online shopping is terrific: you can get detailed product information, recommendations from other customers, make a choice, and have the product delivered right to your door. But if you aren't satisfied with the online shopping experience, you want to look at the physical product, for example browsing through a book in the store, you owe it to the retailer--and to yourself--to buy it there, rather than going home and saving a few dollars by ordering it online.

Think about it for a minute: the retailer pays rent, orders and stocks the product, pays salespeople. You take advantage of all those services, and then give your money to someone else who can give you a better price because they don't incur the cost of those services you just used. Not only is this unfair; it's short-sighted, because it will only be so long before that retailer closes his or her doors, and you can no longer make use of those services you enjoy.

I'm not really sure yet how any of this applies to academic libraries directly, but I do see various strains running through. First of all the idea of intellectual infrastructure -- bookstores and libraries are part of a continuum that facilitates learning and discovery. Secondly, I do see the idea of a kind of intellectual locavore being somewhere in all this, that a physical place can connect people to ideas and facilitate learning. That learning communities are a part of that intellectual locavore infrastructure and libraries and bookstore can create, facilitate and nurture that infrastructure.

The ideas of learning commons and intellectual infrastructure will get increasing important as the content that students and scholars need for their work will get increasingly divorced from specific physical containers or reading devices.

Or I could be completely out to lunch on this one -- reaching too far and trying to hard to see the connection of retain bookstores to academic libraries and coming up with a lame concept like "intellectual locavores".

What say you?

(And yes, I shop at physical stores for books and music so I try and do as much of my buying there as possible. I also try and buy at Bakka as often as I can but it's not even remotely close to where I live or work. Although I only read a few magazines regularly, I do actually subscribe to them.)

(And I guess I have a question for Tim O'Reilly, if you're reading this. How would you update Buy where you shop for the coming world of ebooks?

Tim updates his original post here: Why Using ShopSavvy Might Not Be So Savvy)

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