Monday, December 5, 2011

Those silly booksellers

"With businesses, you go to the same places because you like the service, you like the people and they take care of you. They greet you with a smile. That's how people want to be treated, with respect. That's what I tell my employees.. customer service is very important." - Magic Johnson

"For us, our most important stakeholder is not our stockholders, it is our customers. We're in business to serve the needs and desires of our core customer base." - John Mackey

And here's the news:
"Now a survey has confirmed that the practice, known among booksellers as showrooming, is not a figment of their imaginations. According to the survey, conducted in October by the Codex Group, a book market research and consulting company, 24 percent of people who said they had bought books from an online retailer in the last month also said they had seen the book in a brick-and-mortar bookstore first."

You evil customers, you!!!  Researching at one competitor and then buying at another!  What are you thinking?

“The two forces combined are going to put even more pressure on bookstore sales in the new year, unless publishers can do more to support the book retailer just as movie studios have historically done to support the movie theater.”, which, if you read further into the issue, means that just as the movie studios don't release the DVD version till a movie has killed all the theater revenue it can (and till only the pirates have copies), they're thinking that publishers shouldn't release ebooks till the bookstores have made as much revenue as they can.

Sorry, Buddy.  That ship has sailed.  There are perfectly good publishers releasing perfectly good ebooks not just at the same time as the physical books--some even release before or even instead of physical books.  Certainly, there are customers who only read paper books, but sales stats are showing those people are comprising less and less of the total market of books purchased.  Maybe we should ask Borders what they--oh, no, never mind.  They didn't figure it out in time, did they?

Please, though, go ahead and whine more if it makes you feel better.  I saw a picture recently of a sign on the door to a Barnes & Noble that proclaimed customers who needed a public restroom should check with Amazon.  Yeah, the point--you missed it.

As my upbringing in the halcyon days of Reagan Republicanism convinced me--businesses that need "protection," other, anyway, than standard intellectual property protection that is so key to most business models, in order to sustain their business models simply have a bad business model.

Let's think about this.  First, I understand that I'm NOT representative of the entirety of the book-buying market.  Clearly, there are many who think as I do, or else we wouldn't have witnessed the demise of Borders or the current concern.  Want to assume I'm the outlier, though?  Fine.  Knock yourself out.

Here's the deal, though.  I grew up during a time when the tremendous options we have now weren't there.  If you wanted to buy a book, you actually had to go to a bookstore.  We didn't, though, growing up.  My parents were poor.  I mean, very poor--poverty-level.  Both my parents worked full-time as public school teachers, and the year I was born they made just over $4,000 a year.  That's total, both salaries put together.  We had plenty to eat, certainly, and a rather large if not entirely new home to live in.  We had plenty of clothes, too.  But some things were just plain unaffordable luxuries: shirts with alligators on them, jeans with fancy sewing on the pockets, and new books were in that category.

No, growing up, my bookstore was a library.  And, see, that's just fine.  The fact is that the intrinsic value of a book isn't in the pieces of paper glued together, though I confess to dreaming of some day being wealthy enough to line the walls of one room of a mansion with old smelly leather-bound tomes that I have no intention of reading.  But I also want a garage full of Porsches, so don't get too excited. 

Fact is, I've rarely gone into a bookstore, even as my disposable income has increased dramatically, to buy a book.  Oh, I've gone there frequently, and still do, but not to buy a book, strange though it may seem.

Books, though, represent something I want to be around.  It's not the glued-together paper that excites me, but rather the stories captured within.  Thus, my typical path through your pristine bookstore takes me along the main aisle, sardonically glancing at the mounds of books that you toss at my face to convince me that I should buy them, back to my favorite genre (fantasy and science fiction) followed by a loop around to glance at the new business books and perhaps the audio books before I land in my favorite section, the discount aisles.  Granted, I rarely buy anything there either, but it's fun to look.

There was once a bookstore where I spent over a hundred dollars a month--and that was back when I really couldn't afford it.  It was a place called Title Wave, in Anchorage, AK.  Perhaps its story will help me make my point.  At the time, it filled the three stories of an old house on Arctic Avenue with the smells of both used and new books.  Going there was an experience I loved repeating at least twice a month.  Every time we walked in, somebody at the front desk would say hi, and once they figured out who I was they'd say it by name.  Scattered through the bookcases--old, simple planks in many cases--were the most ancient, comfortable, armchairs you'd ever seen.  In the middle of the store they'd put a sink with an In-sink-erator hot water dispenser and a $15 coffee pot, and they kept both stocked with cheap coffee and standard and herbal tea bags.  I loved nothing more than grabbing a (small, 8-ounce) cup of coffee for myself and a cup of tea for my wife, and finding a place to sit and some books to look through.  And look through we did--we usually left with several.  As I said, well over $100 a month went from my bank account to theirs.

They grew, of course, and eventually they moved into a strip mall down the street.  There, nice shelves held the books.  The employees still greeted us, but it seemed less sincere, more like a Barnes & Noble greeting.  Worse, the coffee pot was disposed of in favor of--Starbucks. Now, there's nothing wrong with Starbucks coffee.  What was wrong was the big sign on the exit from there proclaiming "No food or drink past this point."  I'll give you one guess what was kept past the point--yeah, the one thing I was there to look at.  To experience, as it were.

I called the new place the "WalMart of Used Books."  And then I quit going.

Lookit--I don't want free books, or even cheap books, necessarily.  What I want from a bookstore is an experience.  If your store doesn't offer me anything I wouldn't get at Amazon, guess where I'm going to shop?



  1. you nailed's the experience....

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  3. Very well put and mirrors my own sentiments. However, I hate Starbucks coffee. When I go into one of the big name stores, it feels, the only word I can think of to describe it is, sterile. Even with the cozy chairs they put in. When I ask for assistance to find a book I don't see on the shelves, I am greeted with a third year graduate student who already thinks he is way above this job and my little request is more than he should have to endure. Now I buy my books online, even used ones.

  4. I really enjoyed reading this post, Stephen. You make many a valid point, and I concur! Thanks, and I look forward to following your blog.

    Best wishes,
    Author David Brown