Can bookstores survive in an e-book world? Leigh Beadon of Techdirt thinks they can, if they play to their strengths. Beadon points out that when people talk nostalgically about bookstores, they are usually referring to their local independent stores, not the soulless big box chains. Where the big box chains have been outcompeted by Amazon on the only advantages they had to offer—convenience, selection, and price—the independent stores offer a sense of community, which isn’t as easy to outcompete on-line.
While there has been concern that customers would use such a store as a “showroom” where they look at products that they then turn around and order on-line, that’s not necessarily going to be the case. As Beadon notes, people like to leave the store with something in their hands—and if they’re coming to the store for a sense of community, they’re less likely to send their dollars elsewhere.
Beadon also brings up the example of the Harvard Book Store, an independent bookstore that survived and thrived after its new owner, Jeffrey Mayersohn, installed an Espresso Book Machine which is used to print hard-to-find public domain works as well as self-published works by local authors. The store even offers local bicycle delivery for people who don’t want to come to the store to pick up their order. Mayersohn reported having seen double-digit sales growth month by month over the last year. Phil Johnson writes for Forbes:
Of course, Amazon has got nothing to fear, but that’s not the point. Harvard Book Store defended their market and they did it by leveling the playing field with a giant. You shop there because it’s the most effective and satisfying experience.
Ultimately the bookstore exists to serve a community, and Jeff devised a strategy to safeguard that mission. While people will always take the path of least resistance to buy a book, they still value the experience of browsing and spending time in a place that ignites their imagination. That’s the position that Harvard Book Store has defended.
Of course, at a cost of $100,000 to $125,000, this isn’t going to be something that every independent bookstore out there can buy and install. But it’s just one example of a way that a bookstore can try to adapt and serve its community. There will undoubtedly be others.