Books Are Not Retail

Matt Blind runs a bookstore for one of the major chains here in the US. Occasionally he picks up a keyboard and gives us an inside view of bookselling.

Retail pays the rent, but isn’t what draws people into the store. For every single diehard reader that still buys books, there are:

  • 2 homeless people. I’ve been calling them ‘urban campers’
  • 3 assholes coming in to use their cell phone, *noisily*, because ironically the bookstore is a quiet place where they can hear their conversation. (and so can everyone else… turn down the volume a tad; what, are you deaf?)
  • 4 recent graduates reading GMAT/LSAT/GRE/MCAT study guides, and books on financial aid.
  • 5 job-seekers looking at the resume books and career guides
  • 6 students coming to read the graphic design, fashion, architecture, and art books, and magazines, and maybe a comic book or three — actually, well, this is particular to my store, since SCAD Atlanta is just down the street.
  • 7 folks meeting — for dates, for tutoring, for interviews, for business, for the book clubs (we host 3)
  • 8 people coming in just for coffee
  • 9 people just ‘killing time’
  • 10 folks whose first, last, and only question is, “Where is the restroom?”


In the wake of the latest Borders developments, this is as good a time as any to reconsider the bookstore.

Books aren’t retail. — oh sure, many different retailers sell books: Wal-mart, Target, Costco, supermarkets, drugstores, internet, sidewalk vendors and even the local library (once a year)

But Bookstores aren’t retail: bookstores are social spaces, places to meet, places to spend time with the kids or with friends.

It’s easy to point out the “errors” bookstores make, in regards to the “business” — but do *you* really want your bookstore run as a business? No, honestly.

How do you use (and abuse) your local bookstore?

Extended aside: No, not the local independent, as I’m sure you love your local and buy items from them on occasion [even though the internet is cheaper] because you love them and *heart* them and they genuinely deserve it. They really do. Indy booksellers are pillars of the community and saints and everything and anything we can do to support them isn’t charity — we’re just looking out for ourselves, really, because what would we do without them?

No, not the cute shop in the hard-to-find building in the quaint shopping district just off of downtown — you know, with trees along the sidewalks and open air cafés and boutiques with precious dresses (all 3 sizes too small) and the record store that still sells vinyl and the art theatre no one goes to and the biker bar on the corner that you take your friends to on a Tuesday [“this is so authentic”] but are afraid to go to after 8pm on a Saturday night. —no, not this book shop.

Be honest: how do you treat your bookstore? The big box by the mall. The major chain. You Love the local indy and visit at least six times a year — but every freakin’ Sunday you’re at my store and you read a foot-tall stack of magazines and the sunday papers (the local and the New York Times) and leave a mess and a coffee cup and the crumbs and maybe even a used tissue.

I mean, it’s just a chain bookstore, right? They expect it. No Big Thing. They’re a major chain, nation-wide — if I don’t buy more than a $2 cup of coffee and maybe, maybe a donut it’s not like they’re going to be hurt by that — if they didn’t want me to read the magazines for free, why do they have the tables and comfy chairs and the low-key music and the shelves full of magazines? It’s as much a lounge as a bookstore anyway; I mean, I do buy something every now and then, right? This is how the book business works.


Point 1: Can you name one, one, other retailer that would put up with this crap? You folks plop down in the aisle, take off your shoes, read items in full (meaning you have no need to actually buy them) while also physically damaging the merchandise to the point where I can’t sell it to anyone else.

Point 2: Borders declared bankruptcy. Investors, journalists, bloggers, and pundits are still debating whether this means Borders is going out of business. Or whether “book retail” is even viable in an age of internet sales sites and direct digital downloads.


Borders made mistakes. Obviously. But in any other retail field, Borders’ “mistakes” are not only not obviously wrong, they are standard operating procedures and might even be good ideas: Expand nationally, and internationally. Serve multiple markets, from malls to downtown to suburban retail centers to airports to small town squares.

No supermarket chain is getting flack for ceding online sales of groceries to Webvan — but the pre-2008 Amazon/Borders arrangement is Cause One on many lists [including mine] of Why Borders Failed.

The folks who ran Borders (and there were a lot of them; their org chart has been a revolving door for years) can not be faulted: they thought Borders was a retailer. Their long experience at other retailers should have been all they needed to walk in a run a major nationwide chain, so long as it’s all still retail.

I find it interesting that business journalists can simultaneously condemn Borders’ management for not knowing books, for not being ‘booksellers’ while never explaining to their readers — or admitting to themselves — just what it is that makes the book business different.

Books Are Not Retail.

Big Box Bookstores are social spaces, have been since 1992 or so, and it is at least as important — more important — to consider community, demographics, sociology, psychology, and the whole grand tradition of books and Civilization Itself, as to rely on old models of retail and business.

Borders’ bankruptcy is not a failure of the business. Borders was run as a business, quite professionally, and using standard retail models.

The eventual collapse of Borders came because those in control of Borders forgot (or failed to ever realize) that Borders sells books.

And bookselling *is not* retail.

reposted with permission from Rocket vBomber

(image via Flickr)


  1. Chris21 February, 2011

    What’s upsetting about this model is how book lovers now need to seek actual book stores. unfortunately, these book “malls” have driven most of them away. My city, save comic book shops, has no independent bookstores any more.

  2. elmar winkler21 February, 2011

    Having worked for a number of years at a national bookstore I can totally agree with the article, perhaps the numbers of non buyers were a tad low in my opinion!

  3. elmonica21 February, 2011

    Yeah. bookstores are mostly places to buy a cup of coffee and kill some time. If you can’t make money off selling coffee and treats, I don’t see how they can be profitable.

    Maybe they need to charge admission to go inside the part of the store where the magazines, books, and comfy chairs are. They can still be purchased but not counted on to make money.

  4. J. L. Bell21 February, 2011

    Given that bookstores now occupy a space in our culture somewhere between retailers, libraries, lyceums, and coffee shops, how can they make enough money there to survive? By becoming member-only? Charging admission to special events? Using the mark-up on coffee to pay for the marks on books?

    1. elmonica21 February, 2011

      Good idea. We have gym memberships so why not bookstore memberships.

  5. Serena21 February, 2011


    Having spent more than 5 years working as a bookseller, you speak the truth, my friend.

  6. fjtorres22 February, 2011

    Lost in that long list is one crucial item that not many even stop to consider: demographics. Not just the number of people in a store’s “draw” zone, but also their background, income, employment, etc.
    Books aren’t manufactured goods, they are content. The business has more in common with the music and video industry than with, say, the office-supply business.
    Who you sell to matters.
    And who buys books and what they look for has changed; if bookstores have become social clubs it is because the people who actually *buy* books have gone elsewhere. If the business has changed it is because peple’s expectations have changed and that change was not overnight.
    You’d think somebody would’ve noticed their stores were turning into cafes with attached libraries and done something before it got his far. Like, maybe, get rid of the cafes?
    Premium-price the consumables?
    Partition the two with a cashier in between so people bringing books and mags to the cafe side would have to pay for them?
    Simple stuff, like actually manage operations instead of standing passively there like, I dunno, an uninterested observer. (Most stores have actual policies regarding shoplifting, you know, and the kind of mooching described here *is* shoplifting. So why not do something about it?)
    If bookstores have become social clubs it is only because store managers allowed it. If bookstores aren’t retail outlets it is only because they’re not managed like them.
    It always comes back to the managers, doesnt it?

  7. […] aspect that for example Walmart lacks, and that is part of the reason that Borders failed. Or so says Matt Blind, an ex-B&N […]


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