Monday, August 29, 2011

Why Bookstores are Failing

I’ve been to Barnes and Noble a few times over the past year looking for a list of books, and it never turns out as expected. You’d think that someone tech-savvy like myself would have an e-reader or other means by which to read books, but honestly, I like the entire packaging of the book: The cover, the dimensions, the pages, illustrations if they exist, etc. I realize this is like holding on to the love of CDs, another dying physical media format, but really, e-readers lack a lot of the character that actual books do.

When I’ve made up my mind to get a book, I need to get it ASAP. I don’t want to put it on hold, I just want to go out and get it. I don’t want to order it from because I’m just too damn impatient for that. So I head out to my local bookstore—you know, the massive, mega-store for literature that choked out all the independent stores in the area. With two stories of books and the impressive ink-on-paper smell, they’re certain to have it, right?

First, I’d need to find the correct section. Fiction is easy; just look up the author in alphabetical order. But I’m a non-fiction guy, and those books are organized by genre. If I can’t find it, I’ve got to track down an employee to help. This takes a long time, because there are three employees, and two are at the registers.

Then I find the section, and the book’s not there, so I wonder if perhaps it’s in a different section. I’m not going to check all sections, so it’s time to hit up a computer and do a store search. While lots of places (Wolf Camera, libraries, Futurestore) have had these types of public computer stations for years that let you help yourself, book stores always require an employee to run the computer. If the employee is nowhere to be found, I generally just start pounding away on the keyboard and generally being a dick.

Once the employee shows up, or if they had lead me back to the computer after a failed aisle-search, it’s up to them to find the book for me. They do this by performing an Internet search—something I could have done from my phone. But with their special employee login information, they have the ability to see the stock of the current store and all stores in the area. That’s when this happens:

“We don’t have it here, but I can order it for you.”

What exactly does that do for me? I need that book tonight! If I had wanted to order it, I would have clicked “Add to Cart” when I had it pulled up on’s website when I was at home, credit card and shipping information saved, qualified for free shipping. And it probably would have been cheaper, too.

I understand that they can’t stock every book, but I’m not always looking for something obscure. For example, I knew what I was getting into when I walked into a Borders going-out-of-business sale, dragged an employee to a search computer, and asked her to look up LSD: My Problem Child. But when I go to a fully-stocked Barnes and Noble and I ask them for any book on art deco style—architecture, furniture, jewelry, anything—and the in-store hunt is futile, it’s extremely disappointing.

Instead, they stock tons of best-sellers and keep the racks short. They rely on “free shipping to the store” as a compromise for failing to provide you with the thing you want to give them money for. Occasionally, the in-store search leads to an area store that actually has the book, like when my wife needed Summer for the Gods the next day of school so we drove to a Borders 25 miles away to get it. That worked, but for a Pulitzer Prize-winning work of literature, it shouldn’t have been that difficult.

Bookstores think they’re competing with online book sales by having the ability to special order books, so they don’t feel as pressured to carry a well-rounded stock. But what they have is a major advantage over online sales: A brick-and-mortar store. I can order a book from as easily as I can order from, but I can’t go to the store in fifteen minutes to get The Heroin Diaries. I can pay $11.90 at both websites, or I can order it for $14.99 for the Nook or Kindle, the two websites’ e-readers. But if I don’t own an e-reader, or just want to be able to put the book on my shelf and want it tonight, I can always drive to the bookstore. Assuming they have it. When I get there, though, the answer seems to always be, “I can order it for you.”

It’s not the e-readers that are killing off bookstores. It’s not even the online sales. Webvan didn’t destroy Publix and Kroger. hasn’t shut down Best Buy and Micro Center, or even the tiny Ginstar up the street. Sometimes when you need something, you want to get it right away, and the urge to read a book can be strong, even a craving. I might be on a plane tomorrow, or at jury duty. I might just have the weekend off work and want to sit in a hammock for hours. I definitely don’t have time for that book to be driven across the country to my front door when I should be able to find it up the street.

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