It was the last stop on my Wednesday-before-Christmas shopping trip. I pulled into the parking lot, started circling and once again thought to myself:
“If the economy is in bad shape, why can I never find a parking space?”
In this age of online shopping, and discount stores I reserved my last stop of the night for the book store. I had some time to kill and who knows, there is always a chance I’ll pick something up. For me the bookstore is as much about the experience as it is about buying more stuff. Every other retailer may as well be about buying commodities for all I care, but the book store is special. Before you think I wax too poetically, I’m not even talking about a quaint neighborhood, one-off, store but rather I visited one of the last (the last?) chain book stores around. Frankly at this point they’re all an endangered species, so I’m not sure there is much value in a fight amongst themselves.
It’s a shame that the book store is seemingly falling out of our consciousness. It’s been written about for some time now, and I’m not sure there is much I have to add. There may yet be some value though in writing another snippet on the topic. If nothing else than to record another vote that we should do what we can to keep book stores in the world; even chain ones.
Why we like them
My wife and I can easily spend an hour or more in a book store. It’s like “drive, shop here, drive, shop there, drive, shop, drive, shop,….ah….book store…then home”. We get inside and she goes her way, I go mine. We hunt, we people watch, we imagine all the great things we’ll do if we just had a book on the topic. We find each other, we get lost again. We visit our favorite sections. We pull books and magazines. It really is like doing something other than shopping. Almost all of it is impulsive. After all, if we wanted to make a planned book purchase we would just do that on-line. No, going to the book store is about being there, discovering….where else do you have the opportunity to discover in our prescribed modern existence? I discover more in an hour at the book store than I do bouncing back and forth on the same six websites I invariably visit.
The book store is a great contrast in calm activity. On this night there were a lot of people there, but it didn’t seem crowded. People find their nooks and crannies to escape to. They are hunting too. Or they have found a calm place to work. And others are there to socialize. It’s like a microcosm of a well working society. You’re not shopping, you’re a part of something that is subtle and beautiful.
I was browsing toys, seeing if anything jumped out at me as a last-minute Christmas gift, when I came across a man sitting cross-legged in the aisle intently examining a book. Well I’m never one to shy from discrete curiosity. He was extremely intent on his book; and it was no problem – he wasn’t in my way. So I gazed closer and saw what he was looking at. It was one of those “you’re going to be a dad – now what in the hell are you supposed to do” books. I smiled a bit and for a second was transported back to when I was in that position. I felt all the nervousness and apprehension all over again, now coupled with the experiences I’ve had since our first son was born. It was an experiential moment that probably lasted all of two seconds. I turned and left the man to his thoughts – knowing full well that he was in a very scary place. I don’t know, maybe you think it’s creepy but I like to think about all the stories in that store and how they come together briefly in those brick and mortar walls. When is the last time you went to a discount store had understanding and empathy for a random other shopper?
What I think they do right
Adapt or die. The reality is it is really freaking convenient to just order a book online, along with a million other items. So freestanding book stores out there in the real world need to figure out why they exist, or shutter their doors. I’ve watched our favorite chain shop evolve. I think they do a good job of being about more than just books. I don’t know if they think about experience or not, but regardless obviously it’s an experiential destination for us no less. Better yet, I don’t think they just randomly throw stuff at the wall to see what sticks. Everything seems to come together and make sense.
It’s a no brainer to have a coffee shop in store, but I’ve been watching as they grow other areas such as toys and games, not to mention the obligatory e-reader store-within-a-store. As a consumer it comes down to the fact that I can reliably find products, in person, that suit my lifestyle and interest that I can’t necessarily find elsewhere. For example I like the sustainable and educational toys. The book store that carries these items isn’t competing with toy stores or mass because those channels don’t offer this type or quality of product. The same goes for their “analog” game offering – a series of unique things that I really can’t find elsewhere with this degree of convenience, save for the internet (which misses the point of getting out into society).
If a book store stubs its toe it may as well have fallen down a mine shaft.
Book stores, big and small, do a good job connecting with core guests and keep them coming back I suspect. And the stores know what it takes to survive, or at least that they probably have to work harder to survive. Will they all survive, forever? I have no idea, but I guarantee you, they know how to ask tough questions of themselves and they spend a lot of time figuring things out. They also are willing to experiment with new things I bet. Look, if Walmart, Amazon, or Macy’s screws something up it would take years of mistakes before it hurts. If a book store stubs its toe it may as well have fallen down a mine shaft. The book store needs relevance to exist; maybe this purity is the point.
It used to be I visited a few specific sections, as well as the magazines and maybe the coffee shop at our book store. Now I hit the kids section, toys, gifts, and more in addition to the regular stops. It’s about a lot more than buying cheap books. A visit is about feeding our innate needs and desires. It’s about finding a place of respite from life. It’s about discovery. And about passing something tangible onto our children. If they need to learn about shopping, better it is by taking them to a book store.