Friday, January 24, 2014

The Future of Bookstores

Author and blogger Carmen Amato has asked how me and other bloggers how we see the future of bookstores. It's a question I'm delighted to contemplate because, from the time I was a small child, bookstores have been a Mecca for me, and, as an author, when it comes to selling my books, an oasis of delightfulness-- though sometimes, alas, a fata morgana, now that on-line booksellers such as have drained off so much of their business. Indeed, as a book buyer, for convenience, selection, and price, I long ago went over to and other online booksellers. And as an author I am now seeing more from Kindle sales than from my print books. (In fact, for my latest book, a niche topic, Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, I bypassed traditional publishers and bookstores altogether. I had thought it might be nice to place it with a university press. Then I did the math. Ha.)

That said, I am saddened by the way so many brick-and-mortar bookstores have turned themselves into glorified coffee and tchotchkes-made-in-China shops poorly staffed and oftentimes (not always, I hasten to add) by people who seem they might be more knowledgable about, say, pumping gas. As for the sort of hackwork most stock by their cash registers, Joe Queenan described them best: "by Punch for the edification of Judy." In short,  the typical chain bookstore bums me out-- and the coffee isn't that great, either. I have yet to sit down at a clean table in a Barnes & Noble café. Don't get me started about the restrooms.

Well, I don't think brick-and-mortar bookstores are going the way of the dodo, but if they are to survive, they will evolve, and dramatically, to become much more than bookstores as we have generally known them. For example, a brick-and-mortar bookstore might offer:

Library services, such as those offered by New York City's Society Library-- not just books for loan, but a research desk, large well-lit tables, and small but comfortable and quiet private offices for writers / independent scholars (especially valuable where public library services are problematic);
More curated selections by more knowledgable staff;
Artist books;
More-- way more-- books by local authors;
Rare books;
Collectible ephemera; 
A place to bring in rare books and have them appraised (why not every third Thursday of the month?);
A place to order up a letterpress book of one's own (why not bring in the local letterpress guy every second Wednesday of the month?);
A place to learn about book design and book cover design;
A place to take a marbled paper workshop or how to make pop-up books;
A place to take a weekend seminar on Tolstoy / learn French / history of Rome / Mesoamerica (books included);
Meeting room for writers groups / book clubs / movies / yoga; 
 A machine to print out one's book (a few do have this already, e.g., Politics & Prose with its Espresso Book Machine);
and so on and so forth.

They will also dramatically improve their on-line shops to compete with the likes of not so much in terms of selection, but ease of use and prompt customer service. A few already have. Recently, I have been impressed by the rare books dealers using .

Entrepreneurs are entrepreneurial. And I'll bet bucks to cabbages that there will be people writing and reading 'til Kingdom Come. So whatever "bookstores" morph into, it's going to be interesting.

Time capsule: Here's my 2009 blog about bookstores for Red Room.