The Future of the Bookstore

Jan 31, 2012 | Profit

In the New York Times article, “The Bookstore’s Last Stand,” the bookstore in the title is Barnes and Noble and the villain is Amazon. I don’t think of Barnes and Noble as a bookstore anymore though. For me the Barnes and Noble bookstore will always be the old store at 18th and Fifth in New York, where I spent hours while growing up.

Nope. For me Barnes and Noble is a big company that runs big bookstores and a web site. Once they tried to drive small bookstores out of business. Now they are being done to.

But the NY Times article did get me thinking about what sort of physical bookstore will thrive in the new book world. In the old days, some successful bookstores were specialists, like the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore that seemed like it had every mystery ever written by anyone. Or they had a super-large selection of everything, like Borders and Barnes and Noble.

Those stores were doomed by the Web, particularly by Amazon, where readers can find more titles that you could stuff into fifty super-sized bookstores and where the prices are really good. As I noted, most people I’ve spoken with who buy business books, buy them online, most often in electronic form.

Other bookstores made money stocking and recycling textbooks. They’re threatened by the “textbook-as-subscription” described in another NY Times story, “Making Science Leap From the Page.”

So what kind of bookstore can succeed in this world? My guess is that it’s like the mom and pop hardware stores that thrived even when Lowe’s and Home Depot came to town. They’re like a small restaurant in a small town that Scott McKain describes in Collapse of Distinction. It’s still thriving when other local restaurants have succumbed to competition from fast food and casual dining chain restaurants.

Success will come from what McKain calls “distinction” and it has two components. There is a solid value proposition and a strong emotional connection. An example of how that may work in a bookstore is in “Her Life Is a Real Page-Turner.” Being a successful physical bookstore in the Digital Age won’t be easy, but it certainly can be done.

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