Are bookstores more about experience than product now?

Books and publishing are evolving. That’s plain to see. The rising popularity and functionality of ebooks and e-readers continues to establish their presence in the market. Authors who have the ability to republish their backlist online, direct to readers, (such as how J.K. Rowling is doing with the Harry Potter books) will benefit enormously from this sort of arrangement.

What underlies all this is also the future of the bookstore, both franchise and indie.

First it was the Big Corporate Bookstores that were the threats. They were the villains that were going to put mom-n-pop indie bookstores out of business.

Then the ongoing downfall of Borders brought another huge issue to light: the impact of online book sales and ebooks themselves. Barnes and Noble has managed to keep itself going, many say, due to its  investment in the Nook and the community of readers dedicated to that device–though B&N is still struggling to keep profits up, and recently saw a large quarterly drop.

But bookstores in general…what’s going to happen to them? Are they going to become nothing more than antique shops where die-hard collectors go for the old-timey thrill of turning a physical page? Are bookstores going to become more virtual while the shop itself becomes obsolete and books become entirely electronic or POD?

With the instant gratification readers can experience with ebooks, plus the often steep price reduction through sellers such as Amazon, what’s the point of the bookstore anymore? How can they survive this sort of competition and industry change?

If a booksellers wants to continue to have a physical presence, then I believe it comes down to one big thing – the community experience.

What sort of community has your local bookstore built? Does it have one? When was the last time you visited any bookstore in your area on a recurring basis? Why’d you go?

I’d say if you do regularly drop by your local bookstore, it’s because it gave you a reason to come back.

For example…

One of the big stores in my area (Denver) is the Tattered Cover. I go there quite a bit myself, and it always has a huge presence in the neighborhood. They host tons of author events (holy crap, George R.R. Martin is coming in July!), they’ve got a lively Twitter feed, and the store itself never lacks for folks browsing its many shelves and deli selections.

It has made itself much more than a place to just buy books. It’s an experience. It has incredible character, great staff, and encourages plenty of interaction with the readers who support it.

I believe this must be prominent for a bookstore in the years to come. It’s not so much about the books themselves. Books and reading become the common ground for a vibrant local community. The bookstore becomes a headquarters for an overarching experience–with the side benefit, hopefully, of getting enough business to continue providing this service for readers.

Is that enough, though? I’m sure numerous bookstores have these qualities and are still fighting to survive. Look at Powell’s, for instance. A large, well-loved, community-supported, tourist-awing bookstore that still had to layoff 31 employees just to make ends meet.

So are bookstores on the way out?

I’d argue that bookstores are losing their place as an essential part of the reading experience. We’ll lose a lot more in the ongoing upheavals too, no doubt. However, I believe those that survive and thrive will be the ones that have made themselves essential in new ways. Those that go far beyond just stocking and selling books.

Just as authors and publishers are slowly redefining their roles and methods of reaching readers, so bookstores must reforge themselves as community cornerstones. It will be fascinating to see the changes bookstores will undergo and how they’ll evolve in the years to come.

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