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.