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How do bookstores survive?

I was caught in a major mall the other day (pre-holiday madness) with my family, when my wife suggested we go into the chain bookstore. I’m sure you know the ones I’m talking about – these seem to have been around for the last 20 years with little change besides the color of the paint and the type of faux wood throughout. I was standing there looking at the pitiful collection of science fiction books listening to the Muzak version of Rod Stewart’s ‘Do You Think I’m Sexy’ when I suddenly remember – I hate chain book sellers.

I’ve been stewing on it a bit to figure out why, and thus here are a few reasons why I hate bookstores, and chains in particular

First, the big box store is staffed by sweater-clad, NPR-listening, pseudo-intellectual, former English majors who can’t find the job they really want. OK that’s not fair – some of them actually want the book store job, I suppose. While I admit some of these poor souls are helpful, most of them seem at once disdainful of your request to locate a relatively rare Asimov reprint and clueless as to the most basic form of technology. When they go to the computer terminal to look up a book, they seem entirely flummoxed by the right buttons to press or icons to click. I find myself wanting to push them out of the way and take control despite the fact that I’ve never used their system before. And if you’re looking for some assistance in the way of books you might like, the staff at the store is NOT the people to ask. I asked one vest-wearing young man if a few books written by Luis Sachar (author of the Newberry-award winner Holes) would be appropriate for somebody in the 3rd grade. Seems like a reasonable request of somebody working in the children’s section, but you would have thought I just asked him to explain the Drake Equation. Luckily another shopper was there and helped me out (the answe was ‘No’ for the books I was looking at.)

The smaller chain stores – the ones in malls – are staffed by even less knowledgeable people. If you want to find the latest Grisham pulp hit they can probably locate it on the huge 8 foot display, otherwise you’re on your own.

And what is up with the overwhelming collection of tchotchke clogging the counter when you go to pay? I certainly can appreciate the value (read: profit) of the point-of-sale impulse-buy to the store, but do they have to fill every available space with a menagerie of book lights, candy, costume jewelry, and the inevitable phalanx of bookmarks? There is barely room to put your book on the counter without knocking some of these trinkets onto the floor. Hey, maybe that’s the point – you’re supposed to feel guilty and buy what you knocked off.

You can’t even get into the store anymore without having some overpriced, poorly written hardback thrust into your face. Outside the doors, inside the vestibule, and then just inside the security gates are tables and racks jammed full with books you know aren’t worth the paper they are printed on (as an aside, somebody once explained books as ‘value-added paper’ and you know there are some that actually devalue the paper.) Do I really need an entire collection of books that try to explain The DaVinci Code? No, of course I don’t, but the store seems to feel that’s the first thing I need to see the moment I walk in. Are there really people who buy on impulse the moment they enter a store? Why not give me a chance to see the store layout before foisting something on me.

Even the layout of these stores is tedious. The mall ones are the worst but I suppose I can give them some slack given the quantum level store they have to work with. But the big stores are just as bad. Things seem haphazardly jammed randomly throughout – although I fear they follow some consultants idea of what sells. Here’s a free idea for booksellers. For fiction books, create spaces organized around the genres that actually promote the books! How about science or fantasy-oriented chairs/shelves/displays and maybe mystery or western themes in those sections? Note I’m not talking about dragon-headed chairs or anything like it, but instead displays and spaces made to look inviting to that audience. Make the space look like you care about the genre and its readers.

And finally, the worst part of these stores – the selection is terrible. I mean really – when was the last time you saw the full series of any sci-fi or fantasy set that wasn’t from Rowling or Tolkien? How hard is it to have sections devoted to the absolute masters of the genre (Asimov, Clarke, Wolfe, etc.) that actually contain the books they have written? It can’t all be about the last book, can it? I suppose the answer must ultimately be that older books don’t sell – although I can’t figure out why that is. I fear the real reason is that the system designed to sell me books is all based on the ‘next big thing’ rather than what they have in the stables already. Genre books would seem to have the longest shelf life, yet few – if any – of the books you find on the shelves will have been printed over a year ago.

And let’s face it – you know the prices in these stores are high. I just saw that Consumer Reports found that in a survey of books they looked for (although the sample size was small) they found Amazon to have 33% lower prices than the big chains. Yikes! Do I really need to pay more for the right to a store with a Starbucks in it?

All told, these are the reason I shop online. The stores don’t shove crap at me I don’t care about. They have every book I’m looking for and even easily show me books that are out of print. And the prices – even after including shipping – is actually lower. Yes, I do have to wait to get the books, but frankly, when did we become so enslaved to instant gratification that we can’t afford to wait 5-7 days for shipping? Heck, the online store even tries to predict what I’ll like and presents that when I first sign on. Sure, they don’t always get it right, but at least you can see they are trying.

OK, I got that off my chest. And lest you think I’m ignoring the little private booksellers and used bookstores – I’m not. I hate them too, but for different reasons. I’ll spare you that bit of snarky opinion for now and wait for a later time.

25 Comments on How do bookstores survive?

  1. “I find myself wanting to push them out of the way and take control despite the fact that I’ve never used their system before.”

    Heh. I was in a chain store a few years back, looking to order a Spanish cookbook from the US. (I live in Australia, but my wife and I had seen this book in a library and it was just was we needed.)

    Anyway, the counter staff were busy so I used this computer terminal thing in the middle of the shop to look up the ISBN, locate the book and check on delivery details. While I was doing this a staff member came up and asked whether he could help. Told him I was fine and continued. He coughed politely and said the terminal was for staff use only. Oops. Still, I found the book AND we got served, so it wasn’t all bad news.

    By the way, there are exceptions amongst the chain stores. My local Dymocks had a very knowledgeable SF fan employed to run their SF department (amongst other things) and people would come to this store JUST for the huge range of SF. Now the store has changed hands and Stefen has moved on to another store (sadly, no longer local) – it’ll be interesting to see what happens.

  2. You’re right, really. Mostly, the staff is useless.

    USED bookstores generally have good staffs, I think. At least, the one or two of them in my area have interesting, slightly nerdy people who aren’t making much money but love books. They’re smart enough, I’ll even forgive them their free-verse non-linear poetry writing habits.

  3. You didn’t even touch on how unpleasant bookstores can be during the Holiday Season, with long lines, crowded conditions, and clueless fellow patrons making your life miserable.

    I should have ordered my gift for my Secret Santa online instead of braving the chain bookstore to get it.

    On the other hand, though, as much as I buy books online and the experience of shopping in a bookstore can be a pain, shopping and browsing online cannot compare to the advantages of looking through the stacks of a well-stocked bookstore. Its much easier to make “discoveries” that way.

  4. The book buying experience depends on the customer, methinks. I’ve mentioned my Hunters and Gatherers theory before.

    Hunters don’t want to waste time looking at or even walking past books that they are not the subject of The Hunt. It’s all about selection and the least amount of time to purchase. Amazon excels in this area. Brick and mortar stores cannot match it; they’re limited on space, for one thing.

    Gatherers, to which Paul alludes, enjoy the thrill of discovery. I agree there is no substitute for physically holding a book to see if you like it. (Well…fiction and coffee table books anyway…reference books not so much.) Both new and used bookstores satisfy the Gatherer. The selection of books is not so much the issue because the Gatherer [looks at self] has no clear goal in mind. He’s looking for the discovery of a new book by some favorite author or heretofore unheard-of title.

    As far as knowledgeable staff, yep, it’s hit or miss. But that’s true for any store, isn’t it? Think of the local Best Buy or auto mechanic. Some know their stuff, some do not. I’m sure you can find some mall bookstore outlets that do have helpful staff, not that any customer is likely to go searching for that… 🙂

  5. John, are you actually defending the big chain store? I thought you only bought at used/half-price outlets?

    But, I can see your point – if your desire is to go shopping or browsing, then the big store is for you. Although I might add that the only book you’re going to find at the big chain is the publisher’s idea of a mass market financial success printed in the last 12 months. This isn’t the case with used stores, although they have their own issues.

    If I want to find books by an author that I might not know about, the online stores have the advantage there for me – I can just click on the author’s name and get a listing of all the books they have ever written (and some they haven’t – a problem when two authors have the same name.)

    However, I do browse online succesfully. One feature I like is the listings of books that other customers purchased based on the one I’m looking at. This is far better than the book store and it’s ‘books associated with each other because the staff liked the covers’ approach.

  6. I reckon Amazon is better at helping me discover new books than chain stores, because Amazon always have everything in stock to recommend, whereas the bookstores are always limited by space. That Long Tail thing. (And the recommendations by Amazon are usually spot on due to their immense stats to mine).

  7. My largest issue is with selection, especially in a world of so many series efforts. For example, imagine standing there holding a book by Orson Scott Card title Shadow of the Giant and saying, ‘Hey wow, I didn’t know he had a new book out, awesome!’ and then noticing that it’s part of a series, and is a sequel to Shadow Puppets (not to mention Ender’s Shadow and Shadow of the Hegemon). At this point you are outta luck, because the chain store is unlikely to have any book except the latest, and if by pure luck they did have the previous book, you can be sure they won’t have the first one in the series.

  8. Scott: I’m not sure if I’m defending bookstores, per se…I see no reason to defend anyone. I think it’s a matter of shopping preference. Some of the issues mentioned (tchotchke-fests, crowded checkout lines, know-nothing staff, prominent displays between you and your target) are simply not bookstore-specific gripes – all physical stores have those issues. Even Amazon does in at least one case: their recommendations are the online equivalent of “shoving crap” at you, although admittedly they are geared towards your likes. You’re not likely to to purchase a copy of, say, Encyclopedia for Star Wars Enthusiasts and be offered a hardcore frying pan, f’rinstance.

  9. Remember, book stores suck!

  10. Scott, I know we have all had this feeling about these stores, but it is a simple fact of economics. SF is simply not as popular when compared to things like children’s series and all that manga (while I detest it, the kids are actually reading – so its a step forward.) Personally, I would prefer the stores to move the manga stuff to a location that would keep those kids from blocking the limited SF selection when I am there to browse…

    But when I am actively looking to buy, I avoid any major chains and focus on used stores.

  11. As I read this post, a lot of thoughts come to mind, and I don’t really have time to state all of them. But I will try to note a few of the main ones.

    First of all, I think part of the experience might depend on geography. I don’t know where you’re located, so I could be about to say something incorrect, but my guess is that you’re not in New York City or Boston. I’ve visited chain stories in both of those cities (and the outlying areas), and in general my experience has been better than the one you describe.

    As for the staff at the store…in my youth, I spent a summer as a clerk at a bookstore that was part of a small chain, now defunct. The fact is that no matter how much clerks like books (which is often why they take jobs at bookstores), they can’t know everything about every book. And the stores don’t tend to staff along the principle of, “Hey, we need a new expert in SF because so-and-so just left.” When I clerked at the bookstore, we did make a point of sharing our expertises with each other, so the customers looking for help could be pointed to someone with the proper knowledge. But that couldn’t be the priority at a chain store.

    And the customers were often even more clueless. Bookstore clerks will tell you countless stories of customers coming in looking for a book, and all they know about it is something like, “It’s red” or “I heard it mentioned on the radio; it has something to do with fish.” And then they will complain to you when you can’t immediately identify the book. What’s a poor clerk to do?

  12. Well, at least you’ve got a bookstore in the local mall. We lost the local B. Dalton’s last year. There are the big boxes (B&N, Borders and Books-a-Million) with the Borders and B-A-M beating the bejesus out of the B&N for actually getting mid list author’s books in without a special order.

    All in all, Book Closeouts, Amazon, Paperback Swap, Abebooks and the local libraries are getting more of my time, money and energy these days.

  13. Yes, I can be a Gatherer much more than a Hunter in a bookstore, unless I am looking for a gift or something of similar specificity. And even then, it takes an effort of will not to “Gather” after I have successfully hunted.

    As far as browsing online as James and Scott suggest, yes I do that, as well, and there is the advantage of a larger in-stock count. Targeted recommendations and “Those who purchased…” do work.

    On the other hand, pure Gathering, just walking down the aisles and seeing what catches your eye, is not as easy to do, IMO. Size and tactile impressions are important, too. Picking up a book and looking at it, looking at the size of the type, or even reading a page or so can go a long way towards whether or not I am going to want the book.

  14. If I might make a desperate plea for those who loathe bookstores to use their local library more? There, you’ll find staff who are trained to do all the locate-and-acquire tasks you could want, and will probably be overjoyed to do something they’ve actually been trained to do, rather than sign another work-shy twenty-something in for another hour-long internet chat-room binge.

    And if your defence is that the library never has what you want when you go in, have you asked for it to be ordered in, or borrowed from another library on your behalf? Library stock is declining because no-one ever suggests what they’d really like to see on the shelves – it’s a catch-22 that, at least over here in the UK, is putting the final nails into the public library coffin. Use ’em or lose ’em, folks.

  15. I am a big fan of the library system here in Houston and we make it part of our weekly activities. They have always been the source for books I am unable to get from stores or borrow from friends.

  16. Jim Shannon // December 11, 2006 at 2:39 pm //

    Ok my 2 cents worth,

    I agree the chains suck.

    The Whyte Ave Chapters

    for instance has one bin or

    stand for SF but to their credit

    they separates Science

    Fiction from Fantasy. I’ve

    noticed the independent

    book stores lump everything

    more or less together. Both

    stores special order.

    I go to the SF Signal book

    shelves just to see what’s out

    there and I’ve picked my books

    from there many times.

    The thing with Amazon is

    especially here in Canada they

    are not embracing the Interac

    bank cards. Since I don’t own

    a credit card never have, Amazon

    is loosing a huge market since

    more people use their bank cards

    then credit cards, especially

    here in Canada.

    I find the used book store chains

    dissapointing because a lot of what

    they receive are broken parts of

    Trillogy’s and series.

  17. A few responses:

    I was avoiding naming the stores specifically to try to keep as much of my US-centric bias out of the writing as I could. However, I live west of Boston and the stores I’m most recently unhappy with are Borders and Waldenbooks (which I believe are actually the same company.) I’ve had the same experiences with Barnes & Noble in Houston, so I don’t believe the issues to be one of locale. In fact, I think the very nature of the big chains is to be homogenous.

    I enjoy the library a lot and have taken advantage of the ability to order a book on several occasions. It works out great, and has the added benefit of me not posessing the book in the end, which works out great for me too (I’m not interested in a book collection, although that is an honest goal.)

    Service, in the form of a knowledgable staff and reasonable check-out lines, is the only thing the brick-and-mortar store can offer over the online variant. Given that this is the case, I don’t believe it is acceptable for them to ignore it. I can certainly understand why, as a business, they want to keep the overhead low and hire staff at the lowest wage possible. But I just don’t think this is the way to combat the online threat. I honestly feel I should get something for my extra money, and service is where it is at.

  18. I shake my head at myself for not even mentioning libraries, given my role as a local library trustee.

    Librarians will usually be more knowledgable than clerks, and libraries do a major amount of book buying from publishers.

    West of Boston…hm…I’d humbly suggest that you might find more knowledgable clerks at the chain stores in Boston proper, but I can’t guarantee it. 🙂

  19. I hate the big, north American style chains too (I find the Australian chains to be less aggressive). I live in Canada now and the least said about the bookshop situation here the better.

    (One experience, cause I can’t resist: I’m browsing the sale tables for bargains while trying to find the fantasy section in one of Indigo Chapters’ big stores. Sales assistant: “Can I help you?” Me: “I’m looking for the fantasy section.” SA: “This isn’t it, these are the bargain tables.” Me: “I know. But where are the fantasy books?” SA: “Not here, you have to look in the fantasy section.” Me, barely restrained: “I understand that, but where is it?” You can see a pattern emerging here can’t you?)

    I’ve recently developed a fondness for Amazon, especially for the more attractive UK/Aussie editions of books, but I still love going into bookshops, being surrounded by all those books, coming across ones you’d never have known existed otherwise. The independent shops are great, though you have to know where to go to get a good selection of what kind of book you want. The thing it, you can’t browse on Amazon. Ok, that’s debatable, let me say I can’t browse on Amazon! I like to scan the shelves, I have a great eye for titles I’ve never seen before that are the kind I like, and I love to pick them up and feel them and flip open to the first page and see if the writing’s any good before I buy.

    I agree that they don’t stock older titles, which is very disappointing. They’d sell, if they were available! If I come across an author I love, I’ll scout the second-hand bookshops for their older titles, and sometimes Amazon helps there too. In short, what I’m trying to say is it’s good to mix them all: online, independent/small chain and second-hand.

    Besides, isn’t the hunt the fun part? 😉

  20. For all those folks who claim that the books will sell if they were on the shelves, I might point out that stocking just one copy of each of these “older” books would probably take up more space than some stores have available. And maybe some stores do stock one copy of these older books, but you got there after another person looking for the same book. What is the correct answer then? The whole economics of shelf space is an interesting thing, and can be debated to death. The retail shelf space component strikes in almost every area including movies, software, and games. This lack of space translates into what we currently have in the major chains here in the US: shelves with latest published works and a smattering of associated titles. Now I am sure that if you were to find a reasonably competent sales associate – they would offer to order the book in question, but again if that was what was desired – why go into the store to begin with 🙂

    Anyways, my luck for titles is always better at the used stores or through my library. I pretty much avoid the retail stores these days except to look at new books that my son might enjoy – which we then request from the library.

  21. It seems to me that the retail chains are in dire need of some sort of Print On Demand service. Wouldn’t it rock to be able to go in to the store and ask that they print up a copy of a book you’re looking for? Alternately, you could go online and ask to have a book printed at the local store for same day pickup. That would be great. Of course, this isn’t going to work with hardbacks or the latest bestsellers, but I think it would work well for the mid-list authors and out of print books or the back list books.

    I really think the book publishing business needs to enter the 21st century here and look at ways that technology can help them give their customers what they want.

  22. “It seems to me that the retail chains are in dire need of some sort of Print On Demand service.”

    I believe that Borders or B&N tried introducing that at least once in the past few years. I think the problem they ran into was finding people to run the “kiosk” that had the right combination of customer service mindset, technical know-how and ability to stand working for barely more than minimum wage plus the fact that if it is in copyright, publishers don’t want them to print it, as they’d rather sell you books.

    There are some successful POD outfits, see Mike McCollum’s “Sci-Fi Arizona” for example. But they are pretty far and few between.

  23. Agreeing with most everyone’s comments, but those of us who are recommending patronizing local libraries and used bookstores are the real savants here. Someone needs to point out it’s very likely that the space devoted to all the hardbacks ‘explaining “The Da Vinci Code” located near the stores entrance’ was paid for by those books’s publishers.

    Needing to relate my own telling tale. The other night I’m in one of my local big box retailer outlets and I looking to get copy of Warrior’s Apprentice by L. M. Bujold. One of the clueless staff says (I’m going to presume this was a seasonally employed person) ‘what are you looking for’? I tell them and I’m immediately escorted to one of the store’s employee only terminals. First, clue this is not going to be pleasant or helpful, I need to spell the book’s title and author’s name twice. The only answer the clueless one gave me is the book is most likely ‘out of print’, told as a matter factly as if I was told a copy of Mirless Hope’s Lud of the Mist is not available. I incredulously left the store, and when I returned home, my own online research, using the chain’s online database, tells me Warrior’s Apprentice is now part of the omnibus edition Young Miles. Just a thought but isn’t that information the the clueless one should have given me. Despite this incident, I’ll most likely continue to patronize the chain since I have one of their affinity discount cards, entitling me to ten percent off purchases, and that’s better than nothing.

    Allan Rosewarne Buffy fans Chicago Chicago Buffy/Angel meetup

  24. Novocaine // January 5, 2007 at 10:11 am //

    Guys, really

    ok, I work in a used book store, and I know some of the staff can be abrasive, but… Open your eyes! If a person dosen’t know exactly what you’re talking about within five seconds, that doesn’t mean they are ‘clueless.’ It means they’ve read a thousand million books and have another thousand million books worth of useless information about crappy ‘dan-brow-esque’ bestsellers in their head from doing hours of research for the ‘the book is red’ people. Usually, if they ask a few well placed questions, they can discern just what the hell you’re looking for. -(now, does that mean it’s o.k. not to know every bujold book in her career? maybe. but Some people i work with have never even heard of silverberg, much less ellison)- If you start to get frustrated with an employee’s know-how, maybe you should do a little research and figure out exactly what you’re looking for and then go it alone. The staff is there to help, and people who act like I should know everything about exactly what they like are just retarded. -(i’m usually too busy looking for my own books, thank you)-

  25. teenage angst

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