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Monday, January 01, 2018

How to save the small bookstores

To survive in the Internet age, bookstores will have to start paying attention to how people buy books

I t's the same pattern over and over: a big company comes along, drives all the mom and pop stores out of business, then goes out of business itself, leaving us with no good options.

The pattern was set by Radio Shack, the store that tried to sell electronics stuff to people who hate electronic stuff. Before RS came along, there were little stores all over where you could buy a resistor for twelve cents plus tax, no shipping. You'd go in and ask for a 2N107 and they'd hand you one. Every one of them was driven out of business. Then RS stuck all their parts in a big cabinet and decided to sell cell phones. They literally could not give them away: one time I walked in and the salesguy handed me his phone, saying: Here, this is free. My response: No thanks, do you have an SPDT switch? He didn't know what that was.

That role is being played out today by Amazon. Small bookstores are disappearing. To those of us who buy lots of books, it's a disaster. The Internet is full of people giving out advice to bookstores, and much of it is bad.

In Japan and Taiwan, there are people selling books on sidewalks, in pedestrian tunnels, and in train stations. True, they have a limited selection, but they do a brisk business. Yet bookstore owners here in the USA seem to do little but complain about Amazon.

How to Achieve Total Bookification

Suppose you spend 30 minutes in a bookstore searching for a book and waiting for a cashier, versus 10 minutes online. The book costs $50. Here's how much that costs you:

Item       Online
(10 miles away)      
(1 mile away)      
Shipping 5.00 0.00 0.00
Time (min) 10 90 36
Time cost†4.00 36.00 14.40
Internet cost 0.042 0.00 0.00
Transportation* 0.00 17.68 1.77
Tax 3.00 3.00 3.00
Total extra cost 12.04 56.68 19.17
Total cost 62.04 106.6869.17

†Assumes annual wages of $50,000 or $24/hr
* https://transportationchoices.org/reasons/commute-calculator. Assumes 25 mpg, 20 MPH average speed, $2.60/gallon, $0.78 per mile for depreciation, insurance, etc.

If you buy more than one book at a time (and if the store isn't crowded), a real bookstore ought to be cheaper than Amazon. But even if they were more expensive, you'd still save money. The most important factor is not cost, but the ability to select a good book from the mountains of awful ones. If 30% of books bought online become 700-page doorstops but only 10% bought in a store do, a physical store is cheaper, especially for expensive and profitable technical books. Even Amazon recognizes this: they're setting up physical retail stores of their own.

That's one advantage local bookstores have, but they also have some disadvantages.

Advantages of Local Bookstores

 Bookstore        Online vendor      
You can physically see the book to judge its quality. The book might turn out to be shoddy or dented. Especially true for used books.
You can read inside the book. Limited, one time only, often useless.
You can browse nearby books. Searching is inefficient, finds mostly junk books.
Instant bookification. “Free” shipping can take 1–2 weeks or annual fee.
You can avoid the heartbreak of negative bookification. Used books from online vendors can take 1–2 months; sometimes they never arrive at all.

Disadvantages of Local Bookstores

 Problem        Solution      
Somebody is standing in front of the book you want. Time-activated trap doors leading to alligator pit in basement.
Terrible selection. Warehouse in basement. In-store printing of books on demand. Drones from publisher to store.
Limited store hours = big crowds on weekends. 7am – 9pm. Hardware stores can do it, why not bookstores?

Now, the astute reader might complain that some of my solutions conflict with each other. For example, the used book warehouse is in the same place as the alligator pit. But there's no funda­mental reason why small bookstores can't survive. All they need to do is start paying attention to how people buy books. It's no mystery; if Powell's Books can do it, anyone can.

Take Borders. Our local Borders used to be so crowded it was hard to find a book. Then they moved upscale, cut inventory, put in a spiral staircase, expensive glass doors, and a coffee bar. Not long after that they were gone.

It wasn't just cutting inventory that did Borders in; the whole upscale progressive Starbucksy atmosphere, including the ethnic music they blared at the customers, just made it a terrible place to be. I don't care if it's hippie music, ethnic tunes, or Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, it just interferes with finding a book.

Page from a book on demand
Scanned portion of a page from a book printed on demand. The print quality is good, though the binding is inferior to the original

People who read books prefer a quiet environment. The other solutions that people have suggested (concession stands, singles bar atmosphere, and Mariachi bands) would just drive them away. A party atmosphere is bad, but food is even worse: no one will buy a book that's covered with crumbs and grease stains. If I smell popcorn, I'm outta there. If I hear Hillary Clinton, American Woman, or any song about big butts, I'm never coming back.

People also want an environment free from politics. If B&N wants me to set foot in their store again, they need to stop pretending that progressivism is hip and stop hiding conservative books as if they're ashamed to sell them. There's no better way to convince the customer that you have the intellectual integrity of a late-night TV comic. The stronger the urge the censor, the stronger it must be resisted.

If floor space is not available, one alternative is for publishers to install color printers in every store to print and bind new books on demand. Digital copies can be sent to the store and printed cheaply in authentic covers. Several years ago I purchased a chemistry book printed this way. The quality was not bad, and the technology has since improved.

However they do it, what will kill them deader than a Friday night in Beaver Foot, North Dakota in the winter is a lack of variety. If anyone tells you that they can increase profits by reducing inventory, just say two words to them: Radio Shack. Or just say the A word.

jan 01, 2018, 4:16 am; edited jan 03, 2018, 7:40 am

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