Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The perfect bookstore?

Over at You fight like Anne Rice! Eric Nguyen, talking about booksellers, says:

Retailers need to ask: how can they make the bookstore something totally unique?

It's a good question. But here's the one I'm interested in:

How do you make a bookstore a place customers want to visit?

I'm not convinced a bookstore has to be unique. It does have to be a place your customers actually enjoy visiting. And when they get there, they have to be motivated to stay a while. And then they have to feel safe enough--trusting in the bookseller's recommendations, physically comfortable, financially assured of a good deal--to take a risk, to put down hard-earned money on a block of paper (or a squirt of bytes) worth, in commodity terms, less than 2 cents.*

A perfect bookshop excites some customers. It cheers others. It comforts still others. But it must feel like the third space, the not-home not-work place to be with people you could nod to, smile with, feel easy next to. In a dense urban area, it should be on the most heavily trafficked sidewalk. In smaller towns, it should have an ample parking lot. Good chairs are a plus. Espresso and/or beer is a five-star bonus. The perfect bookstore, in my opinion, is like a bar or a coffeeshop or a church. A bricks-and-mortar bookstore, in other words, is a place of belonging.

There's a bookshop here in Seattle, Seattle Mystery Bookstore, that I would visit much more often if they had a parking lot. (It's on a steep hill. I walk with crutches. It's practically inaccessible to me.) There's another, University Bookstore, that has a parking lot, but has grown just a bit too big for me to feel wholly comfortable in, plus there aren't enough chairs in the right places. Others--Queen Anne Books, Elliott Bay Books--require fighting serious traffic for more than ten miles.

A year or two ago, a new bookstore opened a few doors down from the salon where Kelley gets her hair done--and just a couple of doors up from the pub we go to. Woo hoo! I thought. Let's check it out! So I went in, all smiles, all ready to make friends, and got a fish-eyed stare and an absolute lack of engagement. My guess? They lost five thousand dollars worth of custom from me in less than two minutes.

One of the best book shops I've ever been to is in Atlanta: Charis Books & More. They knew me, I knew them. They stocked the books I liked. I liked the people. The rooms themselves were light and airy, bright and serene. If that store were here in Seattle, I would still be visiting it. I would be willing to spend slightly over the odds. But it's not. Here in Seattle, there isn't a single bookstore in easy reach (say, five miles) that hits all the notes to add up to a chord of belonging. So here in Seattle, I use Amazon: it's fast, it's cheap, I know my way around, I understand their recommendation system, I can sit in a comfy chair and drink tea while I make my purchase.

But I miss walking into a store, getting a smile, and from a real live human being, "Wow, there's this new book you'll love!" I miss having a store I can drop by for a cup of coffee and a browse. I miss having a place where I'll show up on a Wednesday night to listen to a new writer--not because I know who she is, but because she'll be in a bookstore I like.

How many bookstores like that are left? I want to hear about them. Or tell me about your perfect imaginary bookstore. Tell me how it feels, how it looks, who works there, what they sell, and how they sell it.


* I'm pulling this number out of my hat. I actually have no clue, in commodity terms, what that block of paper and ink is worth.

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