Would you pay to browse a bookstore’s shelves?

Victoria Barnsley, CEO of HarperCollins UK & International, discussed that concept during a recent interview on BBC’s The Bottom Line with Evan Davis.

“In America, certain shoe shops are charging to try on shoes. These people just go in, try them on and go and order them online,” Barnsley said. “I think the idea of a bookshop becoming a book club is not that insane, actually. You actually pay for the privilege of browsing.”

Pay to browse. In a bookshop.

Victoria Barnsley, HarperCollins UK and Int’l CEO

The idea seemed crazy coming out of Barnsley’s mouth, but some retail stores have done this before. Customers pay a nominal fee to try on shoes or a wedding dress, and the money is taken out of the cost of the item. But that’s only if you buy the item in the store.

“I think the general bookshop is under real threat,” Barnsley added. “I think the specialist bookshop might survive.”

During the interview, Barnsley mentioned how 35 percent of fiction in the United Kingdom is bought through a physical store. It’s also important for readers to discover new books.

But how can they discover books without a brick-and-mortar storefront?

“I don’t want to take the bookshop away,” Barnsley said. “I want to keep it. I think the problem is, will [bookshops] be able to sustain themselves? They are under enormous pressure.”

Michael Tamblyn, the chief content officer of Kobo, participated in the same interview. His company is in competition and also partners with bookstores. Kobo helps readers discover new books, but understands the role that shops play.

However, Tamblyn noted most shops can’t sustain at current sales levels.

“Where does it re-size itself?” Tamblyn said. “What becomes of the new size of the physical book industry? It’s about having a fantastic experience in that store.”


  1. The only bookstore whose survival I would unreservedly bet my money on would be the one right next door to a bookstore that was charging for admission.

    I mean, seriously? In an age when fewer and fewer people are going into bookstores, Victoria Barnsley wants the stores to charge? Because that will bring more people in?

  2. And would the store have a good enough stock for browsing?

    As I’ve said elsewhere about the paltry stock at my local B&N, it keeps me away most of the time, and it’s free browsing. If I had to be a member or pay a fee, what would be the incentive?

  3. David, Greg and Diane: Personally, I couldn’t agree with you more. When this story broke a couple/few days ago, I thought it was probably the most asinine, ass-backwards thing I’d ever heard. I think I also found it a bit offensive, since I have such a long and intimate history with brick-and-mortar bookstores. And if I had to guess, I’d say 99.9 percent of the people familiar with Barnsley’s idea feel the same way.

    However! Dumping on an idea that seems stupid is sometimes too easy … and sometimes, in retrospect, a mistake. Just for kicks, I’d love to get a brainstorming session going (especially among people who, like myself, find this idea laughable), with the intention of trying to come up with scenarios in which this idea might actually work. For example:

    Let’s say an important, historic bookstore — like Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, or The Strand in NYC — was about to going out of business due to low sales. What if, instead of closing, they built a mini museum-like display inside that explained the store’s history and its importance, and charged a $5 admission fee. Anyone spending $5 or more (on books, or on any of the touristy trinkets they could sell) could have their $5 admission fee put towards their purchase. (In Barnsley’s NPR interview, she mentions that some wedding dress shops do this, presumably to keep women who aren’t actually getting married from trying on a dozen dresses they don’t intend to buy.)

    It’s just an idea, but then again, that’s sort of the point, I think: Coming up with ideas for difficult problems is a good thing, even if most of the ideas turn out to be bad. After all, we saw what happened to the music industry when they weren’t quick enough to innovate after MP3s and BitTorrent sites came about. And yet now, some in the music industry are having a change of heart.

    Remember Metallica suing Napster? Last December, they finally joined Spotify and “buried the hatchet with Sean Parker,” according to a CNET article. (Too little, too late, most would say.) What if the music industry had been more open-minded in terms of discussing and trying out ideas that, on the face of it, seemed wrongheaded?

  4. I’d pay $5.00 for the Strand! (If it’s still the same as it was 10 years ago when I was last in NYC.) Maybe a few other books stores of that calibe too. But not for the likes of B&N or Books-A-Million.

    Were it would get iffy is with a quality book stores like Elliot Bay in Seattle, that does have browsing potential, but maybe not enough to pay for it. Then again, I do have to pay for parking whenever I go there, and it’s nothing to pay a few dollars for an hour of browsing. What would be the harm an other buck or two that goes to the bookstore?

  5. Strangely enough, this idea doesn’t bother me at all. The deciding factor, however, would be the size of the admission fee.

    If my local big box bookstore were to charge a 50 cent admission fee. and gave an automatic 50 cent discount on every purchase from the store, I would be happy to pay the fee, even though I don’t buy paper books any more. However, I wouldn’t pay 5 dollars per visit.

    I visit a ‘bricks and mortar’ store about once per month, specifically for ‘showrooming’. I fully intend to buy the ebook version of anything that I find interesting. At 50 cents per visit, this would cost me 6 dollars per year, which in my case is a trivial amount. If this keeps the store open, so that I can continue ‘showrooming’, then great. It’s a small price to pay for the ability to flip through a number of books and to evaluate their content.

    Perhaps in the future someone will come up with a better way to browse and examine new release books online. If and when they do, I will stop going to visit physical bookstores. The current on-line browsing technology, however, doesn’t really satisfy me.

  6. I would not pay money to enter a store. Period. Knowing the entry fee goes towards a purchase wouldn’t sway me: it would feel too much like a forced purchase. Coffee bars inside stores surely give their host bookstores a cut, so there you go: they make money off customers who linger for hours.

    I have also never heard of a shoe store that charges for trying shoes on – that’s a ridiculous concept. Zappos has free shipping both ways, so I can try on all the shoes I want for free.

  7. I never pay for coupon books or memberships (like Costco). I would never ever go near any store charging admission. Paying for those things makes you feel obligated to purchase something when you really don’t need it. It’s not my responsibility to pay for someone’s failure to fix their failing business model.

    I’ll rejoice when the day comes that acres of energy wasting brick and mortor shops are turned into something more useful like parks, community centers and residences.

  8. This does already work at least in the US.

    Sams Clubs, Costco and other warehouse type stores have memberships. You pay for the privilege to go in and browse. If you buy something you typically save enough in price to make up the cost of the membership fee.

    Turning this focus to the book world you would need to be a bigger store with thin but broad inventory. Provide kiosks or Wi-Fi for customers to buy the ebook from your own portal (even if only an Amazon Affiliate type of setup) as well as shipping on physical purchases to those who need it. Refund the membership fee once purchases are over X dollars.

    The key to why this could be successful is entire the management and staff. With the right people to manage inventory or be able to provide assistance or recommendations as needed it would be worth it to pay to visit and get help.

    Of course you can do almost all of this for free right now at your local public library. But with our funding being in peril every budget the private sector could pick up on this and make it work.

  9. The $5 or whatever to walk through the door, even if it’s refunded toward a purchase, doesn’t sit well with me. Honestly I find it sort of offensive. And I don’t think spending an afternoon trying on wedding dresses vs. browsing a bookstore is really a valid comparison.

    Strangely, though, I don’t have as visceral a reaction to the idea of a membership fee. I might be willing to do this, for a really spectacular bookstore (like a Strand, but not a B&N), if it were coupled with a discount. But not if you’re still paying list for everything. So they lose a little incremental revenue off each sale but maybe make up for it from the membership fees and the fact that I’m more likely so shop there because of it? I’m not sure whether it works out.

    Still, though, I can see where that might help in protecting print sales that go to places like Amazon (I still buy a lot of print), but I’d be kind of surprised if people who only bought e would go for it.

  10. For a bookstore like the typical B&N I would venture that 90% of the population would not pay for a membership for. Especially when membership/loyalty cards are a “free” way of getting a discount.

    However yes I know for a fact that people do pay to browse books.

    It is called a public library and the fee you pay is the taxes you pay to the Government.

    So almost everyone in the US at least (and I would guess most of Europe as well) is already using this model. They just to not think of it as paying a membership fee right now.

    As I mentioned earlier I do think that as the public library declines someone else will pick up on model and make it work for the private sector.

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