Friday, February 08, 2008

Bookstore Experience

Allow me to pick up a discussion I've read about in a couple places. The "bookstore experience." It's real. With the housing market swinging back to their advantage, slowly but steadily, my parents are hunting for a new place to live, and easy access to the "bookstore experience" is something they often cite. They ultimately don't care if it's a indie, local concern or a B&N. They just want a civilized place where a person can have a cup of coffee, thumb through some stacks, and grab a paper. And have it nearby. Ultimately, large national chains might muscle out some indies, but I think bookstores will remain.

As for comparisons to record stores, I can see where a facile connection can be made. All record stores, like all book stores, sell essentially the same product. Cormac McCarthy doesn't get better because you bought it at Politics and Prose, the way a hand soap at Body Shop may be preferable to whatever they have at Bath And Body Works. And, yes, brick and mortar record stores face similar problems from internet retailers. But book stores have some key advantages.

Just spitballing here:

First: Bookstores have a much easier time at building an experience through in-store promotions. Politics and Prose really makes its bank by bringing in the best and the brightest authors to meet with consumers. Having worked this beat for DCist, I can tell you, it's standard trade at all levels of book retail - from corporate chains to indies. Now, record stores often do the same thing - instore performances - but they're harder. They're more complicated to do, the set up takes over a lot of retail space, the noise means you have to secure the blessing of neighbors, and while shoppers can tune out a reading from an author they don't like to continue shopping, try doing that when some horrible ass noise collective from Des Moines are shattering your ear drums. Also: having worked at a large chain music store, I can tell you first hand that corporate types are skittish on in-stores because of shrinkage.

Second: I'm not sure the process of buying books online has made as radically pleasant as it is buying records. It didn't take long for me to fall out of love with flipping through CD stacks on shelves. I mean, I've mastered alphabetical order a long time ago...just take me to what I want! Somehow, though, I enjoy the way a book store will present the merchandise. I like seeing the ways in which certain titles relate to others. I can stand for hours in front of a well-stocked case of political science books. I always inspect the new releases table - especially when there's reissues/reprints alongside new releases. There's a certain amount of zeitgeist to be uncovered there.

Third: Don't underestimate the power of tourism. If you pick up any good city guide, you'll be directed to a goodly number of bookstores that are considered worth visiting. I imagine people who come to DC make the trip to P&P for the same reason people flock to The Strand in NYC or City Lights in San Francisco. If I'm making a long stay in a different city, bookstores are something I like to seek out. (Never been to The Strand, though - but Housing Works is pretty fantastic.) Do people, travelling and touristing get as excited about record stores? I have, but I think I'm an outlier.

That said, ironically, one of those brick and mortar booksellers that I'd travel to - Applause Books - has gone out of business. So what do I know. None of this could save or forestall the demise of your local small bookseller, I'm afraid, but I think there's still demand for that bookstore je ne sais quoi. Wouldn't it be ironic, though, if the smartest thing Barnes and Noble ever did was simply partner up with Starbucks? That's a thought that kind of sucks. At the same time, it sort of proves that this stuff isn't rocket science.


PK said...

True or false: Indie bookstore staff members seem less interested in alienating customers they deem "unworthy" than indie record store workers...? (and their tastes are less overtly forced upon the patrons...)

IMGoph said...

well, candida's books in logan circle is closing down this month, just FYI