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Who Moved My Bookstore?

February 7, 2011

Recently, I was reading a blog post from my buddy Carmen talking about her experiences at one of her local chain bookstores.  It was a great post, but I drew a totally different conclusion than she did.  Rather than yammer on and on in the comments section of her blog, I figured with everything going on in the industry right now, it was worthy of a dedicated post on “Confessions.”

I’d sure love for you to visit her blog and read the post yourself, but if you can’t, let me summarize.  She took her kids to the local chain store to spend some of their holiday money and gift cards.  Hoping to find someone on staff to hand-sell her kids some books, she was surprised to see that they simply directed her to the section where the teen books were.  No recommendations, no suggestions,  just directions.

She portrayed what happened in the store as a customer service issue.  That is to say that the clerk didn’t (in her eyes) care enough about the sale to take her kids in section and help guide them to just the perfect book.  Not being there, I can’t say that wasn’t the case, but I also can’t say I was surprised. 

There was a time when stores, chain and independent, were guaranteed to be stocked by people who loved, loved LOVED books.  You know the store, the one in your neighborhood.  They might have had a table in front with “staff selections” that you knew were beloved by the store.  They certainly didn’t rely on a computerized inventory system to look up things – they knew just where to find each and every book.

Now, you might or might not receive that level of service.  Chain stores have pushed their computerized inventory systems on staff, so they tend to rely on those rather than gut knowledge.  Staff positions have been cut, so you may not have someone on duty full-time in the children’s section and new fiction, leaving you to fend for yourself.  Heck, you may have store employees who are really good at most things, but don’t love books.  Seen that too.  They treat them like a commodity, which can be ok with other products.  But not books – we expect more, so much more.  And so often, like Carmen and her family, we are disappointed.

If I go today to my local chain store (which I can confess is a Barnes & Noble), I will find the children’s department is most often staffed by one of two women, who are passionate about the books in there.  It certainly isn’t a requirement of the job, but they bring this love of books and reading to work with them every day and it shows.  I usually walk out of there with at least two more books per kid than I planned on buying.  No worries, they’ll be devoured by my book loving kids.

Now, if these women were to leave, there is no guarantee that their replacements would be the same with customers.  Heck, there’s no guarantee that they would get replaced. 

Sadly, with independent stores going the way of the dinosaurs, and one major chain teetering on the edge, it’s going to become more common place to see bookstore employees who are there to do a job, not to evangelize.  I remember when Borders brought in a management team who had run big box stores – they began to treat their stores the same.  You could see how the edicts from the top were affecting the long time employees who were there when it was a small store in a college town. 

I was really struck by a quote from a Mashable article about Seth Godin’s new mostly digital publishing venture with Amazon.  It’s harsh, but sadly, not totally untrue…

In an interview with Mediabistro in August 2010, Godin said that he was frustrated by the slow, roundabout publishing process he had experienced in the past. “I like the people, but I can’t abide the long wait, the filters, the big push at launch, the nudging to get people to go to a store they don’t usually visit to buy something they don’t usually buy, to get them to pay for an idea in a form that’s hard to spread,” he said. “I can reach 10 or 50 times as many people electronically,” he explained.

Wow.  I’m as excited about the potential that we are experiencing with eBooks as anyone, but…well, let’s just say leave it to Seth to tell it like it is.

Where am I buying books these days?  Lately, I buy a lot online, either Kindle, Nook, or iBookstore (Apple).  I’m reading blogs and magazines online to get recommendations for new books.  I’m also dabbling with sites like librarything and GoodReads, though certainly not as much as I could be.   I don’t talk to friends nearly enough to be sharing new book finds, but I hope to do a bit of that in 2011.  I still love to go into stores and browse, and do so whenever possible.  I mourn stores like Stacey’s in San Francisco, but rejoice that Powell’s in Portland and Elliott Bay in Seattle are still in existence.  If I find a store where someone is willing to do the ole hand-sell, I buy.  Boy do I buy. 

We used to have a Barnes & Noble quite near my house that was pretty good, but that closed several years ago.  The Borders just north of me was pretty good too, but that went out as well.  The local B&N is across the river, but it’s a big store that carries a lot, and I enjoy shopping there. 

Do I miss the days of the great local bookstore?  Yes.  Unfortunately, I think we are past the point of no return (seen any record stores lately?)  Whatever happens, I firmly believe that reading isn’t dead, and will never be.  It’s just going to take a new form, and with that, discovery and marketing must change.  Hopefully in time to get Carmen’s kids some great new books. 

Note – I carry a disclaimer on my blog in general, but I need to say it again  – these are my opinions and my opinions alone and do not reflect those of my company as a whole or any employee within.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 7, 2011 8:21 am

    As the daughter of a librarian, I know the place to send my son for solid advice about books is to the library. We go to bookstores too, but rather than have someone wave my 8 year old off to a specific session, I want to hear the passion in her voice as she tells him why “this” book is an a “must read.” I miss that.

    Like you, I read my books in a variety of different ways but I miss the passion and the discussion part. I joined a local bookclub so I can talk books with other like-minded people. I was raised to respect and love books, how can I pass that on to my son when the people who sell the books could care less?

    I don’t think reading is dead, I think it’s taking a different turn. It’s evolving. I hope books don’t go the way of vinyl, but as I rarely buy hard copies anymore and can’t expect everyone else to either.

  2. Sherry permalink
    February 7, 2011 9:12 am

    I’m lucky enough to live near Word, which is universally lauded as an amazingly perfect independent bookstore — and I agree. I was in there two days ago to buy friends something for their six-month-old son, and I asked the store manager for baby-book recommendations (she had done this two years ago, and I was looking for a specific title). Though she handed me a few, I went with one that caught my eye on the shelf. As I was paying for it, she said: “Oh, this one’s good!” and knowing I read it in the back she continued: “Isn’t the ending a hoot?”

    It doesn’t matter how many events the store throws or basketball teams it creates; it’s the passion for books large and small that makes me and other love this bookstore so dearly. The manager got her start at Walden Books, and to see that B&N isn’t cultivating bookselling talent is a shame.

  3. Tony permalink
    February 7, 2011 10:05 am

    Reading certainly is not dead because I just read this whole blog post and loved it! One of my favorites yet and one I’m passing on to my friends that I regularly discuss this topic with.

  4. February 7, 2011 11:51 am

    I’m not surprised by your friends experience. I truly hope the bookstore is not dead. The browsing experience is just way too much fun and I think there would be way too much censorship caused by marketing and sales if books were only in the big chain stores.

    I don’t know I have a feeling or maybe it’s just a hope that all this will lead to a backlash of the smaller stores coming back in certain markets. Maybe book lover will able to pay for the experience? What do you think?


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