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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Saving the bookstore

An eloquent posting in The Platform by Peter Osnos last week. It starts with the story of a recent community bookstore that was damaged by fire in a neighboring restaurant. It turns to the common plight of bookstores of all types in an era of online competition and other competitive changes. Peter offers two strategies for stores pulled from his observations from more than two years of looking closely at bookstores as part of The Century Foundation’s Caravan Project. The strategies (focused on old-fashioned and new fangled basics) are ones that college stores should take to heart as well. These appear in the last three paragraphs of the posting, which I will replicate here:

Old Fashioned: Service. Service. Service. For a variety of now seriously out-moded reasons, booksellers are reluctant to take customer’s cash or credit cards until the books ordered actually arrive at the store. That uncertainty no longer satisfies in competition with Amazon and the other online retailers, where you can close the sale with a date for delivery. Customers should never leave the store, having asked for something, without buying it, unless, of course, it can’t be found anywhere. One of the biggest complaints book buyers have is the difficulty of finding what they are looking for. Something in the culture of bookselling reinforces the sense of erratic supply. “It’s out-of-stock” and similar explanations from clerks inevitably grate when the competition customers can access from home says they’ll get what they want, even if it takes awhile.

New Fangled: Stores should invest in the relatively simple upgrade of their Web sites, which virtually all now have to include shopping carts for ordering e-books, downloadable audio, and print-on-demand versions of all kinds of books, including large print and out-of-copyright titles. Backing up the brick-and-mortar premises with the vast array of books in various formats now available from distributors gives even the smallest store access to the same supply as the biggest chains and online outlets. Somewhere in the store, a "kiosk” (actually a computer terminal) supported by a knowledgeable employee can make any customer conquer the fear that they won’t find the book they want. The pleasures of finding something unexpected while browsing the stacks will never be matched by a screen search, so stores should stuff as many titles as they can on to shelves, but only one copy, with the full assurance to the customer that there are many more where that came from.

What these ideas have in common is the notion of a bookstore as less a repository of goods on hand than a showroom of what’s possible. The cozy familiarity of a good bookstore and the role these stores play as community assets are cherished by readers. Updated concepts of service and supply will reinforce those facts rather than diminish them. And in the meantime, for those great booksellers who cannot overcome their troubles, we will mourn your passing.

Certainly there are other ideas out there that will help college stores remain vibrant, vital, and valuable to the communities they serve. How about some of the readers out there contribute some points of view or suggestions?

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