This morning, I was getting caught up in news, and this article about the closing of a Barnes and Noble in Manhattan grabbed my attention.  It’s clear that Barnes and Noble has been acting more like a community center for the neighborhood than just a store.  People are using it as a library without all the security and fuss, and as a place to come browse, kill time, find peace, and perhaps even slow down.  Maybe the Barnes and Noble is acting as an analog Google or newspaper- it’s a place where people go to see what’s happening, read headlines, figure out what’s new, and then move on in their lives.

For a long time, I’ve used bookstores as the new library.  They’re everywhere.  There’s all sorts of information available.  Instead of checking out books from our local library and then needing to return them, we got into the habit of just buying them instead.  After all, the bookstore had a better and more up to date selection than any library. The folks there were friendlier and much less proprietary over the books and magazines than the vague sense of  “don’t touch” you get at the library.   We could grab a cup of coffee there if we wanted to.

As a result, my house looks like a specialized version of the Library of Congress.  We have kid books drooling out of the bookshelves.  Even with the purging of books we don’t want to keep forever, and donating them to the local hospital, we still have more books than we can deal with.  My library of books on law, learning, developmental psychology, business, marketing and more could easily keep a graduate researcher busy and occupied.  The hard part is always figuring out what to do with old books and how to get them to someone who would appreciate them.  And there’s the storage issue as well, but I digress.

As a result of the overwhelming number of books in the house, I, too, have started to use bookstores more like libraries.  I browse more.  I figure out what new books are there, so I can buy many of them electronically, to ease the strain on my bookshelves.  I figure out which books I need in print for research purposes, the ones I’ll need to flag and highlight, where electronic versions don’t work nearly as well.

But if bookstores go, because brick & mortar and sales per square foot are important factors, I will lose everything I gain from browsing in the real world.  I will lose the serendipity from discovering something unexpected placed along side what I thought I wanted, but instead found something totally different much more interesting and engaging.  Google and Amazon are great for giving you what you want, but they are awful at helping you figure out what you might want, but would never know unless you had that “Eureka” moment that works so much better in the real world than online.  Bookstores have become the new libraries, but because they depend on sales and not public support, they may be in danger as things shift to a more digital realm.

The Big Idea

What we really need (listen up book industry and librarians everywhere…..) is a way to marry the book store and libraries together.

  • Libraries lack the most up to date stuff- but could publishing companies give them books on a consignment basis?
  • Could library/bookstores generate money and revenue from essentially affiliate marketing books from publishers?
  • Could bookstores become more like showrooms for print books, with a wide variety but less overall numbers, allowing people to them buy the book either as print on demand or digitally on the spot?
  • Could the bookstore/library have a permanent collection and a rotating stock of titles?
  • Could there be a stand where we see the print copy of a book, but can buy the electronic copy right there as well, feeding the instant gratification need?
  • Bookstores have a wide variety of locations, and opening up new libraries takes tons of money, just to buy a starting collection of books, not to speak of the new information technology and governmental jobs that need to be created and paid for before you can open the doors.  Can we somehow make libraries more common, by taking advantage of this marrying of consumer and knowledge culture?
  • People need libraries and bookstores both as a place of peace and quiet, and as a way to start to parse all the information we get everyday and consolidate it into knowledge and useful constructs.  How else can we get this in daily life?

Bookstores and libraries are perhaps the most peaceful and quiet places we have in modern life (with the possible exception of museums and high end retailers that look like museums.)  There’s a quiet and reverence being the presence of these books we don’t get at the coffee shop or in the park.  Bookstores are our gathering place and public square, but using it as such isn’t helping the store’s bottom line.

Bookstores and libraries need to transform.  If they disappear, we will all be poorer for it.  But I bet if we can find a great way to combine the two, we’ll all be richer for the experience.