Small of entrance and obscure from the street, Shakespeare & Company is tough to locate, so you have to work to find it. As I wandered the back streets of the Latin Quarter, I kept running into others just as lost as me. Yet there it was, right on the Seine, hiding in plain sight. Ironically, this is a place you go not because you know what you’re looking for, but rather because you never know what you’re going to find.
It has the feeling of an ancient tomb, musty and sacred. Three rambling floors of titles and tomes—piled up on the floor, falling off makeshift shelves, arranged using no traditional scheme. They populate narrow stairs and tiny rooms. It is bookstore as destination—as much a feast for the mind as for the senses. And I believe, I hope, this relic of Paris can provide some understanding of what the future holds for bookstores.
The demise of the big booksellers is hardly a new story. In Washington, DC, one of the most educated, literate and wealthy communities in the country, Borders has shuttered almost all of its locations. The reasons are obvious—competition from online vendors and ebooks has combined with a decrease in disposable income as a result of the economic recession. Sales dry up, business is business.
It is as true here as it is throughout the world. Just this week, Australian Minister for Small Businesses Nick Sherry even made a bold declaration about the death of the bookstore: “I think in five years, other than a few specialty bookshops in capital cities, you will not see a bookstore. They will cease to exist because of what’s happening with Internet-based, Web-based distribution…. What’s occurring now is an exponential take-off—we’ve reached a tipping point.”
In my opinion…maybe. There’s no doubt consolidation will continue to take place. What exists, though, is an opportunity for large booksellers to reinvent how they market themselves—to rethink their approach to the Thinking Class. And it has everything to do with the experience they present.
Barnes & Noble, Borders and the others had in recent decades become a sterile alternative to the convenience found on the Internet, providing little reason to wander in and make a purchase. It is the same with Starbucks, entirely lifeless in presentation; yet, caffeine can be rather powerful when it comes to purchasing decisions. Few people claim to be addicted to literature.
The question then becomes anthropological. Do books possess an inherent nature that appeals to humans? Or, is our desire to be around them rooted more in nostalgia or to be associated with something intellectual? While it is difficult to say, demand does still exist for bookstores, and there are of ways large booksellers can retool their marketing to cultivate demand and re-grow sales:
- Commit to an Experience: Shakespeare & Company is but one example of the type of experience a store can offer—old world and unpretentious. The Strand in New York City is just as special, but almost exactly the opposite—a labyrinth of metal shelves. There’s Red Emma’s in Baltimore, a socialist enclave of considerable character. San Francisco offers a number of funky places in the Mission off Valencia. I go out of my way to check these places out. Without becoming some themed hell, like a Clyde’s Restaurant, the big stores can embrace the local or regional aesthetic and culture and create an experience that would be authentic and bring people in the door.
- Curate to the Community: Bookstores are, yes, about books. One of the best examples is right here in Washington, DC: Politics & Prose. It is not much of a place to visit, though does have some folksy charm; however, the staff does an exceptional job selecting books relevant to their readers and holding events that people want to attend. Again, the large booksellers can use their considerable catalogs to craft finely tuned collections that speak to the local audience, all while offering the convenience of a broader selection.
- Become Distribution Points: Apple is all about the Internet…but it still has stores. There are a number of reasons why—immediate gratification, tech support and the opportunity to kick the wheels of products before buying. Bookstores should adopt a similar model, bridging the gap between the online and offline world. Kindles and iPads are not going away. It will be important to find ways of becoming relevant in this new world. For example, book retailers should work with publishers and authors to create destination-specific products. Ubiquity is a product of the web. We need more ways to offer uniqueness and something special.
Old-line companies need to take risks and dive into the demand that still exists. It is a turbulent time for justifying costs and growing the bottom line; however, innovative marketing and creative communications—combined with smart business decisions—can do a lot to create new business.
By Seth Thomas Pietras