The Future of the Bookstore

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When Borders closed in Bryn Mawr in September 2011, it was a sad day for many in this area, let alone the 30 employees (many of whom were students in either the graduate publishing or creative writing programs at Rosemont). Eighteen months later 3 bookstores remain: Children’s Book World in Haverford, Title Page (used books) in Bryn Mawr, and Barnes & Noble in Devon. This is not a plight relegated to the Main Line; this has happened all over the country. We read in the news, practically on a daily basis, that another independent bookstore has succumbed .

Yet, I am not ready to give up hope. Too many people still love the feel of a book — yes, you know what I’m talking about, the fabric covered cardboard protecting 250 to 300 pages of paper with vivid words that play with our imaginations. I do, however, believe the model must change. Children’s Book World in Haverford, by name, is a long-loved children’s bookstore, but wait…Hannah Schwartz and her staff recognized the needs of the community, and the front corner of their shop now features books for an older set. But even this may not be enough.

So I asked the program Facebook fans “Barnes and Noble to close 1/3 of stores over the next 10 years. What will this mean for some areas – no bookstores…Hmm. So how can we change the model to make them more financial viable? Thoughts?”

Here are some of the rather interesting responses (names have been withheld): “…combine the concept of libraries with bookstores. Beyond the basic idea of buying print books, it seems like the main reason people love bookstores is the atmosphere. If we keep the brick and mortar store with shelves to browse and cushy seating (and of course coffee shops), but combine it with ability to loan books (and e-books) perhaps it would work. That, or get federal funding like libraries!” Another responder said, “The solution in some areas is to convert local bookstores into non profits & make them community centers.” Well, bookstores are, I would argue, community centers, but without funding, they can’t survive as community centers. Thinking from a purely financial viewpoint, this comment was posted, “The inevitable problem of the publishing industry is that booksellers don’t get enough profit from the sale of a book. Since discounts are set, retailers – big box or indie – cannot mark-up the price of a book like in traditional retail. If new books were sold like clothes, authors & stores would have a chance. Books & music need to change their whole business structure or authors & musicians will have to always keep a day job.” Finally, the last comment, “Publisher’s rent space in the store and create their publishing boutique under the umbrella of B&N (like the harlequin display). B&N then partners with amazon to fulfill [the order]. Give [customers] a scanner while in B&N and [then] fulfill through Amazon!”

While none of the models mentioned above will work solely on their own, I assure you there is a model. As the Director of the Graduate Publishing Program and a reader, this is a question I will continue to ponder, a question my students will continue to ponder, and maybe we can create the successful model!

Anne Converse Willkomm, MFA

One thought on “The Future of the Bookstore

  1. Small and specialized bookstores, including comic book stores, are actually doing pretty well. The two I have in mind: Robots & Rogues, a specialized science fiction and fantasy bookstore in Lafayette, IN, and my local comic book store back in Toledo, Ohio, called Seann’s Anime and Comics.
    Robots & Rogues was founded by a pair of ex-Borders employees and do pretty well by combining their specialized knowledge with extra events that keep customers coming back, such as game nights, while Seann’s recently moved to a larger space in the city to keep up with their growth. Again, Seann’s focuses on specialized knowledge and additional products, in this case hard-to-find DVDs and collector’s items, including signed editions and posters.
    One thing that may help small indies? The ability to sell ebooks. It would be very cool to be able to buy a business card-sized coupon code to enter into an ereader or tablet in exchange for a digital edition, which could really help indies expand or maintain their business. Of course, hosting regular events to keep customers coming back would also help a lot, since community is so important.

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