Bricks and mortar (and Lego Men)

I’ve gone on the record here a number of times about my pro-bookstore bias, so I won’t go into it again, but let me start by saying this isn’t a physical vs. digital post.  For now at least, we can all agree that physical bookstores exist, and there are people who still wish to patronize them.  I am one of those people, but I respect that there are people who have other preferences.

I wandered around the B&N behemoth at the top of Union Square the other day and thought about the ways that stores innovate in what are not the easiest times.  As I passed the sizable Lego section of the store on the escalator (and glanced down at the enormous book-reading Lego Men that I’d strongly consider purchasing if they were for sale), I realized that it’s well past the time that I cringed in response to non-book space in the store.  Don’t get me wrong: when that particular store expanded their Nook…nook, I was very happy they found space from the DVD/music area and not the bookshelves.  But even when I forced myself, I found I was happy that people who might not go out of their way to buy books have to pass tons of books on their way over to build at the Lego table.  What use are shelves and shelves and shelves of books that will be returned if no one goes into the store to buy them, after all?  However complex the economics, eyes on books seems better than not.

Over the years, we’ve seen stores adding cafés and media and toys and games.  We’ve seen stores try to find a home for themselves in a world of e-books with things like the Nook and the customized e-book shelf talkers that Melville House offers indies, as recently reported by Laura Miller in Salon.  When I worked at B&N, the store I was in had recently begun an events program (which was nothing new in general, but it’d previously been deemed too small to find the space for them), with signings, readings, story time and writing groups.  Whatever the results may be in this time of great change for the industry, I’m pleased any time I see that a piece of the intricate publishing ecosystem won’t go down without a fight (so long as it’s not at the expense of authors, of course—the rest of us are nothing without them).

For those of you who sometimes shop in physical bookstores, what do you see stores doing in a bid for survival?  Any great ideas that you think should be adopted more widely?  Any ideas you wish they’d try?

24 Responses to Bricks and mortar (and Lego Men)

  1. RamseyH says:

    My local B&N just turned a third of the store into a toy area. I think this is smart overall, but combined with the fact that they removed the train table in the kid’s book section it now makes going in there with my 2 year old a complete minefield. Before, my husband and I would go in and take turns playing with him at the train table while the other shopped. Now the only option for kid-distraction is toys that must be purchased. I try to keep my kid away from toy stores altogether, so B&N is now off limits for frequent use. Which is no biggie, since we just got Kindles. 😉

    I used to frequent a Borders, however, that had a cafe with a really huge seating area. They used it for signings, book clubs, local chess and go clubs, and of course my writing group! I actually think they were doing really well, so it’s too bad they got dragged down with the entire chain. I do love the idea of a book store as a community hangout.

    • Lauren says:

      Hmmm, from my vantage point on the escalator, it looks like Union Square’s B&N has a Lego table you can play at. Do you think that would help? Presuming it doesn’t require the purchase of a Lego toy, do you think that having him play there would take some of the pressure off wanting to take something home? Or is spending time amidst the sheer grandeur of the Lego displays going to just stoke his desire for more stuff to a level that a stint at the Lego table won’t be able to overcome?

  2. V. Lynn Burgess says:

    Our rural town had one book store which closed.
    I noticed they added a comfy chair for customers to stay and read. They had a child’s table with two chairs in the children’s section.

    In 2004, a college instructor informed me that she goes to Barnes & Noble to sip coffee while reading a stack of books. Just that was enough to locate the store and visit. I never got the coffee but I noticed the service area in the middle of the store. Exploring the children’s books kept me engaged until it was time to go.

    I suppose Kindles are nice to have but it lacks the sensory experiences a hard bound book offers. Books also look much better on the shelf too and offer more of a conversation piece. I favor books and a book store for a community hangout! (I like what our friend posted above).

    • Lauren says:

      Agreed on the preference for physical books, but I must say that as much as I like the IDEA of bookstores as a community hangout, I’ve never gotten into it in practice. Maybe it’s because by the time that was a viable option, I worked in one, and the romance of bookstores is somewhat killed by being yelled at by customers so frequently.

      My family did use the library that way when I was growing up, though. We lived within walking distance, so it made a lot of sense, but I’m not sure how much non-kid community outreach they had.

    • Salviamo says:

      Keep these atrilces coming as they’ve opened many new doors for me.

  3. Melinda says:

    Ann Patchett just opened Parnassus Books in Nashville this fall. It’s just a great selection of books with a few places to sit—a few cards, journals, and Parnassus gear, but no coffee, no toys, no unrelated merchandise. Very refreshing and hopeful!

    • Lauren says:

      Yes, it will be interesting to see how that turns out. Content curated by an author you trust adds an interesting dynamic to the idea of bookstores.

  4. Nathan says:

    I have two recent experiences that touch on this. I’m a huge brick and mortar store fan, and shop at independent stores if I can. I’m trying to teach my daughter the same, though I also buy from Amazon.com and received a Kindle for Xmas.

    Story 1) During the week after Xmas my seven year old daughter was off from school and I was off from work, starting a new job on January 2: She asked to go to a bookstore, since we have turned her into a junkie.

    The closest independent book store is eight miles away (which, in central Jersey is a haul because of traffic and lights), and it kind of stinks. The closest corporate store is a B&N about 11 miles away, again a haul since it’s down a retail corridor of Route 22. The Borders that was three blocks from home closed about a year ago now.

    So, I decided to make a trip of it to an independent store I had friended on Facebook about a 40 minute drive down a major highway. I assumed that at noon on a weekday they’d be open to the public, but instead they were having a Lego event with an author of a book on Lego building, and would not let us in!

    They said we could come back around three, so my daughter and I had lunch, wandered around the town to see the stores, a very cool waterfall and a local sculpture museum. We came back at the appointed time and were still not allowed in. Instead I bought my daughter a Wimpy Kid e-book from Amazon and she read it in the car on the way home.

    Story 2: I started my new job, which is the Executive Director for a non-profit supporting families with kids suffering from terminal or long-term illnesses. I’ve been hired to facilitate the capital campaign and fundraising to open a facility to give parents, siblings and the ill children a break from the non-stop care so they can be a family.

    So on Friday I decided to go to the B&N referenced above with my daughter and wife to get a book on capital campaigns. I visited the B&N website, found the book I wanted and tried to find out if it was in stock as I used to do that with Borders. No dice. So I tried to order it for pickup. Still, no dice. Delivery? Five days.

    Since my daughter wanted to buy a Wimpy Kid book for her friend’s birthday party today we had to go to B&N anyway, and did. There was not one book in the entire store (I checked shelves, their computer and with staff) on running a capital campaign, much less the most popular one on the B&N website.

    So I fired up the Kindle, ordered it and had it by WhisperNet ™ in two minutes.

    LESSON: Brick and mortar stores are losing their fans by not understanding how people buy now. Too many experiences like this, with people going out of their way to visit the actual store and being turned aside by other events or inadequate stock and they will go the way of Borders and I’ll be left with only Amazon as an option.

    Sorry for going on so long. I didn’t expect to when I started.

    • Nathan says:

      Just read this to my daughter, who says it wasn’t Wimpy Kid. It was a Dork Diaries book. I get them all mixed up. :-)

    • Amy says:

      Hang in there, Nathan! Keep trying! (well, not at those stores, but perhaps they will get new management before going under!) I can’t even believe the first incident you reported.

      But it’s not like that everywhere. Anytime we have events at stores here, people can shop pretty much as normal, and we just work our way around the crowds. We have a really beautiful, well-stocked B&N that is ALWAYS busy, and I’ve even seen many teens there on Fri/Sat nights. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like what I have here is the norm, and I dearly hope there is room for the bricks & mortar retailers and the e-tailers alike.

    • Lauren says:

      Thanks for those insights!

      That first anecdote is really surprising! Huh. I hope that’s not a common occurrence.

      Regarding your second, I prefer instant gratification myself, but not enough to prefer e-books to print books. That’s why I’m still a bricks-and-mortar customer in most things I don’t buy digitally–I hate to wait for shipping. Everyone has their preferences though, and where I’m a fan of the digital experience (mostly music/software), I’m a download-only customer myself.

      On the plus side, instant gratification is one area where B&N has adjusted to customer needs, since the Nook could presumably have solved your problem as easily as the Kindle. B&N would happily have instantly sold you that e-book as well, I’m guessing!

  5. ryan field says:

    The comments and experiences are interesting. Speaking from a different pov, as someone without kids I didn’t even know bookstores were so geared toward kids.


    • Lauren says:

      I think it depends on the store. The Union Square B&N is just so huge that it’s got giant sections for many things, not just Legos (and many of the Lego sets don’t seem to me to be for kids either). The cafe and event spaces are bigger, I’d think, and certainly geared toward adults. I think in smaller stores, it depends a lot on the clientele. I can think of some indies that don’t seem very kid-friendly at all.

  6. Joelle says:

    Our indie just closed recently, but it was more a case of the people wanting to retire and no one really wanting to take it over (I live on a small island in BC, Canada). What I think they did right, and that smaller books should maybe consider is that only about 30% of their books were new. The rest were very, very, very clean used copies (pretty much looked new). And the price on the used copies was half of the retail, not two or three bucks (although, I’ve noticed used books in Canada actually sell for much more in general than in the U.S. anyway).

    The used books helped them keep a variety on the shelf, but you could easily mistake the store for a new book store because of how they kept it and the stock they chose. Also, because we are on an island, we’re all used to waiting for things (either in the mail, or until we plan to go to Vancouver Island on the ferry), so they were able to use their mailing list to take requests for both new and used books. Then, when they went on buying trips, they’d get everything on the list they could. That probably wouldn’t work for most indies, but it worked great here.

    Another thing I’ve seen popping up in indies is high end yarn. A lot of people who read seem to knit! They keep a good selection of knitting and crochet books, encourage groups to meet there a la the book Stitch and Bitch, and yarn just seems to go well with books.

    I personally don’t hang out in bookstores. I know! Travesty. But my senses start going into overload the second I walk through the doors. Also, it confuses me to have to pay for all those books since I use the library so much! Haha! I do mostly order online because of where I live, and I usually use Chapters which is a Canadian chain like Borders or B&N. The closest indie is a ferry ride and an hour drive, so I don’t feel too badly about this because it’s really my only option. Also, as an author, Chapters has been really very good to me! When I do book signings in small stores, I always try to buy a book (although the owner often gives me one of my choice too!).

    • Lauren says:

      Yarn! I haven’t noticed that, but it’s very smart. I’m not crafty, but crafty people are everywhere these days. And judging by the number of craft and craft-themed books published annually, they’re book buyers.

  7. Andrea says:

    Personally I love B&N, but that´s probably because I live in Spain, so I don´t have a good bookstore nearby which sells English books I like, not even a proper library.
    What I like about B&N is that you can just go there and hang out. When I visited a (writing) friend in the States last summer, we used to take our laptops, find a table in the café and take turns browsing the store, ending up with a big pile of books on the table to read and look at. I found so many books there that I would never have found otherwise, just by looking at what´s on the shelves and picking books up, and I bought as much as my suitcase would allow. I also loved the notebook and book gift section.
    If I´d live near a B&N, or any large bookshop where it´s o.k. to hang out, have a coffee, use the internet, read the books, etc, I would be there at least every weekend, and I would buy all my books there to support them. I love being surrounded by books while I´m writing, though sometimes it can be a bit distracting too…
    (Unfortunately, the only way to get the books I want is by ordering them online. It´s just not the same, browsing the virtual bookshelves of Amazon. I feel I always have to know which books exactly I´m looking for, otherwise I can´t find anything.)

    • Lauren says:

      I think one of the saving graces for bricks-and-mortar retailers, at least for now, is that the online retailers are still figuring out how to design well for browsing.

      That said, I think that someone’s going to crack that code, and (despite my serious frustrations with their user experience design) I’m sure Amazon and Apple are both hard at work finding the solution, so it might be a temporary plus for the physical retailers.

  8. Tricia says:

    I understand why B&N has gone the Lego way…but, the problem is when I tell my 5 year old he can have a book at B&N, he always wants Legos instead! To get him to pick a book, I have to take him to the local library. In fact, Ricky calls B&N – “Books and No-Books”, instead of its’ proper name! Sigh…

  9. Kaitlyne says:

    To be honest, I have to admit that B&N losing book space has cost them an awful lot of my sales. I was actually discussing this with my boyfriend the last time we went, about a week a ago. I went in with three books in mind that I wanted to buy. None were available. I decided to go find some authors that I liked to pick out a book that I hadn’t read yet, only to find that only two or three books were available by said authors, in spite of the fact that they have a dozen or more in print. I finally went and found a random book on the shelf that I could buy, but had *any* of those other books been there, I would have bought at least a couple of those as well.

    This isn’t the first time it’s happened. Every single time I go into the bookstore, I have the same experience. I remember when I was younger it was much easier to find books, even in smaller bookstores. The small independent store near my house has a better variety.

    I understand that they’re making more money by selling other products, but I find it frustrating. It makes me less likely to go, and if I can’t find a book in their store, I don’t buy it online from B&N.com–I go elsewhere to find it.

  10. Julia says:

    The beauty of shopping in a bookstore is that you discover books that you wouldn’t otherwise come across. Now, with enhanced ebooks, it almost seems as though the book alone is not enough. That is why we are seeing bookshops expanding into other areas as well- people are easily distracted by technology. All these extras (like lego)are toys to keep the customer coming to the bookshop to buy books in a traditional way.

    In my local Waterstones in Cambridge, there is notebooks, magazines, stationery, coffee shops and lots of other things unrelated to the physical book. People are there for the book, but to stay in business they have to create additional income wherever possible.

    Bookshops need to focus on the things they can do that internet shops (such as the Amazon) cannot. Helpful and dedicated booksellers aim to make the experience of buying a book enjoyable. Amazon attempt this with ‘Recommendations for you’, but they will never be able to achieve it in quite the same way that bookshops can.

    There will always be a want for bookshops, so lets hope they are able to withstand the storms.

    Long live the bookshop.

  11. Lauren says:

    Thanks everyone for responding, and sorry to leave you hanging here! It’s been a crazy week–sorry it took me so long to jump back in.

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