What It Takes for a Bookstore to Remain Relevant

Every other day, it seems that we’ll hear a prediction of the demise of brick-and-mortar bookstores and public libraries. For the most part, these doomsday voices believe that digital content is a perfectly acceptable alternative to print media. Some are pundits, some are individuals who can’t bear to be without their gadgets, and some even work within the book industry.

Yet there are a good number of us who believe otherwise, for a variety of reasons. Granted, if books are perceived as nothing more than a commodity, like clothing or food products, the ability to sustain a retail storefront will be that much more difficult since there will always be another party selling the same item for less – sometimes even below cost – in our free-market economy.

In our workshops and training programs, we ask booksellers and store owners a simple question: “What is it that you’re selling?” Most everyone already knows that the answer is far more complex than “Why, books, of course.” We help them understand and articulate that if a customer is to be inspired and motivated to make a purchase in their store, the intangible reasons they will do so go far beyond books: how they viscerally feel upon entering and being within your space, their need for information and/or entertainment, how you’ve been able to help them with a concern by finding just the right item.

We wonder how authors must feel to have their meticulously researched and well-written books described as “digital content.” It seems as if their work is no longer being valued as it once was. And we wonder the extent to which publishers realize any significant savings in the long run by simultaneously releasing both hardcover and e-book editions. Most publishers will acknowledge the important role that indie booksellers play in having a new release noticed, yet many of their practices are less than supportive of that same bookseller.

And consumers must be continuously reminded that where they choose to spend their hard-earned dollars makes a difference to the very community in which they live. Are people so blasé that they wouldn’t care if a vibrant retail shopping district becomes a ghost-town, or if their community can no longer provide essential city services because the sales tax they would have otherwise collected is not being paid to online retailers?

There’s no question that the internet, in a number of ways, has improved the quality of our lives. But there’s a price to be paid if we go too far in that direction: social isolation, civic unrest, systems collapse and so much more. Retail brick-and-mortar bookstores can remain relevant by grasping the big picture: balancing the use of technology with their passion for books and reading, their ability to deliver top-notch customer service, the creation of a warm and inviting atmosphere, and the opportunities they offer to bring people together.

Idlewild Books in NYC, a haven for the world traveler

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