Following the recent news that Barnes and Noble and Microsoft have joined forces to create a new subsidiary company which will focus on and the college text book business, there have been suggestions in the media that the remaining retail stores might ultimately be abandoned in favor of online book selling. While this may seem a natural progression in our ever-increasing technological age, what would this mean for traditional book-lovers?
Given that it was superstores such as Borders and Barnes and Noble which changed the face of ‘bricks and mortar’ retailing for books, wiping out many of the smaller independent stores in the process, it’s hard to have much sympathy for them now that their own retail markets are being eroded by online distributors, especially when they have their own sites. Some voracious readers are probably perfectly happy with the knowledge that now they don’t even have to step outside to satisfy their latest craving, but for others the enjoyment of books is not only in the reading, but in the browsing and the choosing.
At this point, I should probably admit that, generally, I hate shopping and don’t see the attraction of it as a recreational activity, but if the packed parking lots at malls, specially at weekends, are anything to go by, a substantial proportion of the population do enjoy it, despite the rise of online shopping or the recession. Personally, I’d rather go to the gym than shopping -not only does it keep me fit, but it saves money - unless the shopping involves a bookstore.
Bookstores are a haven for me. I say I going to ‘pop in and buy something’ and I could still be there an hour later. Sometimes I tell myself I’m going to just browse; see what’s out there for future reference. I’m sure there have been occasions when I’ve walked out of a bookstore without buying anything, but it doesn’t happen very often.
There always seems to be at least one book which grabs my attention and just seems to call to me to buy it: often a book which I had no idea existed and would probably never have found in an online search. There is something special about being able to pick up books, attracted perhaps by the cover art, flip through the pages to see whether the style suits, and check out the author bio if it’s a new-to-you author – a satisfying sense of research which is hard to emulate online even though most of the non-tactile options are available on the book-seller’s website.
Scarsdale has already lost the local Borders store. It may not be imminent, but what happens if Barnes and Noble does eventually close its doors? A quick Google search of alternative bookstores near Scarsdale turns up only specialty stores and those mostly deal in secondhand/rare books. And I’m sure this applies to many other towns, large and small.
Will independent entrepreneurs see a niche that needs filling - smaller, local stores where the owner has a chance to get to know the regular customer and vice-versa, adding further value to the book browsing process? Ironically this would bring the business full circle back to how it used to be, but at a price. Will enough of the book-buying population be willing to pay full jacket price once again for the privilege of a more personalized service or are the discounts more important overall?
Surely there is still sufficient demand amongst all those recreational shoppers and the more ardent book-lovers for the full book browsing/buying experience so that although the retail market might be considerably smaller, it would still be sufficient to provide a living to those independent booksellers who would no longer be competing with megastores. But maybe that is just wishful thinking.
What do you think?