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The Problem of Reinventing the Bookstore

books1[1]Bookshops are the platypus of the retail world. Not only are they part of an industry with a unique obsession with and attachment to its products, but they are also one of the types of retailers which are the most susceptible to losing business to online competitors.

Like music, the discoverabilty of books often works better online than in stores, and that has the potential to make booksellers as redundant as music stores (which have closed in record numbers both in the US and around the globe).

A month-old article came across my desk again today, and since I didn’t have the time to write about it when I first saw it I thought it was worth dusting off and commenting upon.

The article was published in the More Intelligent Life magazine in the May/June issue, and it offers three different takes on how to reinvent the bookstore.

More Intelligent Life asked several designers to re imagine a bookstore. There are several flaws in the designs, and there are also a couple flaws in the concept brief shared with the design firms:

We gave each practice—Gensler, 20.20, Burdifi­lek and Coffey Architects—the same brief. They were to design a general-interest bookshop, selling fiction, non-fiction and e-books, in store and online, on a typical European high-street site, with two floors of 1,000 square feet each. The budget was £100,000—modest, we knew, but independent booksellers aren’t minted and that figure was ring-fenced for the fit-out; they could assume there would be further funds for training staff or running events. The shop could be called Intelligent Life Books, or given another name.

The size of the proposed store and the budget are not unreasonable, but I for one question whether such a broad selection of books is practical. Also, did you notice what is not mentioned?

The answer is simple: used books. In this day and age used books are simply another category on next to new and digital, and a redesigned bookstore should at least consider the possibility that it will also sell used books. No one knows how big that market is, but it does exist and thus should be addressed.

But other than that, it’s not a bad concept. Here’s the first of the three designs, from Gensler:

books2_0[1]The bookshop, as Gensler saw it, had to anticipate every sort of literary need, from grabbing a paperback or download, to relaxed browsing, personally tailored reading-lists, self-publishing, book clubs, author events and even an enhanced experience of reading a book in the bookish equivalent of a flotation tank.

A week later, Roberts produces a bird’s-eye view of Gensler’s bookshop, another disarmingly simple drawing containing a lot of original ideas. The first surprise is that you don’t have to enter the store to shop from it: the glass façade is a touchscreen that can be tapped on to download e-books from QR codes. The choice could be infinite—“the whole catalogue of the British Library,” said Roberts, taking on Amazon with a sheet of smart glass.

A vending wall swings out onto the pavement, popping out a changing selection of paperbacks. Inside, new titles are laid out on a long table that marches down the space. To one side, there’s a “Harry Potter wonderwall of discovery”, to be explored by ladder (ignoring, for the moment, health and safety). While customers can be in and out of the shop in a matter of minutes, the back half of the store caters to those who can stay longer. Literary sommeliers advise on what to read next, or usher you into a pod for a multi­sensory experience: you curl up and read a hardback with an appropriate drink (tea for Austen, whisky for Hemingway), soundtrack or even smell. Readers wanting a more social experience gather on bleacher seating (“simple timber steps with cushions”) to take part in book clubs, hear an author give a talk or discuss self-publishing, which can be done via screens in the far left-hand corner.

At the back is a floor-to-ceiling wall of books, their spines arranged to spell tl;dr—short for “too long; didn’t read”. As Gensler’s name for the shop, it’s a confident bit of irony: if anywhere could excite a reluctant reader, distracted by social media, into buying a book, it would surely be this tech-smart bookshop. It’s also a compelling bit of graphic design. “It’s a very analogue way of signing,” Roberts says, “but by using the product itself it becomes a sculptural installation. There’s a big visual pull towards the back of the store.”

And here’s the second concept design, from 20.20:

In 20.20’s bookshop (top) people could do all sorts of things: download reviews and e-books (which would be discounted if bought in person), buy printed books from a frequently edited selection, consult well-informed staff, have a coffee or sandwich, read in cubby­holes, listen to audio books, watch a performance by an author, rent a desk at which to write or illustrate, and self-publish on the in-house printing press. The shop would be called The Art of Storytelling, the thinking being that stories endure, no matter what form books take.

Lee and Jim Thompson, 20.20’s managing director, talked persuasively about the nuts and bolts of their bookshop. Like many, it would have a café, but theirs came with a twist: a Yo! Sushi-style conveyor belt delivering short reads and reviews to consume with your coffee. This would act as a draw to the back of the shop—“you need some kind of anchor,” Lee said—while mobile “mid-floor units” carry screens to advertise events, and books that fit a frequently changed theme, such as the ten best adventure stories. These units (at hip height, “because we all tend to look down”) also offer some cover at the threshold—a place for nervous shoppers to hover while they orientate themselves in an unfamiliar place.

To get them upstairs, there’s a staircase. And a tree. “We always believe there should be some kind of ‘wow’ in a space that draws you in,” Lee said. “So this central feature, representing a tree, links the two spaces through a hole in the floor, with lightbulbs dangling from the structure.”

And finally, Burdifi­lek and Coffey Architects crafted a design which I would call a temple of books. It’s more akin to an Apple store than anything a bookseller would be able to afford to build:

Burdifilek’s bookstore (called ILB, for Intelligent Life Books) is more of a gallery, showcasing particular books alongside related merchandise. So for six weeks, the focus might be cookery, with the store selling pots and pans as well as cookbooks; then it might switch to Danish design. When I asked what would make money here, the books or the other products, Burdi said “I think it’s both. It’s a win-win.”

Some book-lovers might find woks and whisks a diversification too far (though they might be happy to sit and flick through a book in an Arne Jacobsen Egg chair), but Burdi thinks there’s a gap in the market. “It’s like a concierge service: everything in one place,” he says. “My frustration [at the moment] is that I buy the book, then I have to go to another store to buy the product. It’s a luxury to see and touch the product. That’s what the internet doesn’t give you.”

Current exhibits are displayed on plinths (“I don’t want to call it a table, it’s more of a sculpture, to make you focus on what’s on top”), while the shelves that bookend the space offer both an edited choice of printed books and, via built-in touchscreens, infinitely more e-books and apps. The materials would be “inexpensive but noble”: European walnut for the shelves, “a very wide-plank dry oak” for the floor, and “a flat white plaster finish, very gallery-like” for the walls.

Besides the lack of any mention of used books, two of the three designs also left out any mention of POD. I am familiar with past suggestions to base a redesigned bookstore around an Espresso Book Machine, and I think those older designs may actually be more practical and realistic than the three professional designs quoted above.

Print on demand might not be a major source of revenue for publishers now, but the bookstores and libraries that own an Espresso Book Machine report that they do a lot of business with authors who bring in their own work to be printed and bound. And at the very least POD has the potential of enabling a bookseller to more closely match the selection of their online competitors.

So what did you think of the designs?

I found the descriptions very pretty, but I was disappointed by the lack of detail on the bookstores’s business models. Only one of the designs really addressed that point, and what they propose just doesn’t sound practical. The real point of this exercise was to find ways for booksellers to make more money, not just design a beautiful mausoleum.

And just to be clear, I do think small booksellers can survive if they adapt. IMO they need to one, offer competitive prices, and two, sell more stuff online. While many bookstores are already doing both, this point is frequently missed in debates about the future of bookselling (which seems to mainly focus on how to save the physical stores).

If, as recent research suggests, book buying is moving online then bookstores need to follow. Amazon might have the majority of online book sales in the US but that doesn’t mean booksellers can’t compete on either price or service.

That is certainly what I am seeing in other types of retail.

I recently got back into model trains, and after I had been buying locomotives and other stuff online for a couple months I realized that I was actually supporting an independently owned hobby shop – just not in my area. One of the hobby shops I buy from is based in Indiana. I buy there because they offer prices and service within range of major retailers like I know some might suggest that I support the nearest hobby shop, but it’s a half hour drive away and charges full retail (which is sometimes twice what I pay online).

I know some will be disappointed that I am cheap and shirking my duty to my local store, but I feel that driving for an hour to pay full retail is simply too much to ask. I want to shop online, and sellers need to be there for me to find.

This post has now gone incredibly off topic, so let me close it with a question. What do you think is the future of bookstores?

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Moriah Jovan July 6, 2014 um 9:10 pm

Nobody listens to me. *rolling eyes*

Nate Hoffelder July 7, 2014 um 6:50 am

I listened, Mike (or I would have had I been around in 2009). But you’re right that most people did not.

Moriah Jovan July 7, 2014 um 2:21 pm

Dude, I am not Mike!

Nate Hoffelder July 7, 2014 um 2:24 pm

That was a joke. He was often right years before everyone else, and I thought it funnier to mention him than Cassandra (from Greek myths).

Evan July 7, 2014 um 7:50 am

I love bookstores. I used to love record shops.

John Christian Hager July 7, 2014 um 9:09 am

The future of the bookstore, I think, is the same as for any other business: bright, if the owners are willing to change in response to prevailing market conditions. You have to provide a customer with an experience or a service you can’t get online or from a competitor. Someone who knows the products and the producers and has actually read the works they sell and is willing to share what they know is the best sales multiplier of all. A disconnected sales person/shelf-stocker or some reviews/comments which may or may not be trustworthy are not really conducive to sales.

Ask yourself this question: aside from the driving and shipping issues, is buying a paperback at your local Wal-Mart really all that different from buying that same book at Amazon? Not really, in my book. If you give your customers something your competitors won’t or can’t, your survival is assured (all other things being equal).

Rod Kackley July 17, 2014 um 4:39 pm

Comparing book stores and music stores really is analogous because some books are sold in digital form. However books are not streaming like music is.
The problems faced by book stores are much closer to the challenges faced by shoe stores. Zappos is shutting them down.

Book stores are going to have to go online. Perhaps their physical locations can be used as showrooms for online sales. But the three ideas showcased in this blog are way too expensive. Think about how many books would have to be sold to break even.
Is nostalgia worth it?

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