The Inevitable Decline of the Brick & Mortar Bookstore

I’ve come back to write a post on my website after reading this insightful article on the I Love My Kindle blog. During the writing of the comment on that, I realized the strong emotional link I have to bookstores and the somewhat sad experience I recently had at the Knoxville, TN Barnes & Noble (which, for the record, has been my favorite bookstore for quite some time). So, here I am writing this. Hope it doesn’t go too long.

Like many professional people, I’m a long-time reader. Starting at school book fairs in the 70’s I’ve been buying more books every year than I can possibly read. Honestly, I’m OK with that. Reading is one of the most enjoyable and peaceful activities in life (IMHO) and just being around books and bookstores has always had a calming, soothing, but simultaneously exhilarating effect on me. Something makes me think that other people visiting the bookstore felt the same sort of effect.

What is it about a bookstore that it has such an effect on me?
• Is it the smell of a new book with its binding, paper and ink? That has its charm. And though used bookstores are great, they don’t give the same emotional pull for me that B&N or other big and small bookstores do.
• What about the coffee shop in the corner? That smell of coffee always goes well with books, no doubt about it.
• Maybe it’s the visual overload of being able to see a book-lover’s dream… rows and rows of books in all their shapes, sizes and colors? This probably has a something to do with it. At least for me. And probably also explains why books are found in every room in my house. Lots of them. Almost like a library. Oh, and I love the fact that you can see all of the books, wander over to a particular section and focus-in on a small section and ALWAYS find something you’ve never seen before yet looks particularly interesting. That rocks.
• What about the social/antisocial thing? For me, this means I can go to a public place, that is usually crawling with people, yet still remain 100% in my own little world. What a great combination, the proximity effect of being around people without having to interact! (Maybe this one is a little weird, but I’m just putting it out there.) Plus, on the off-chance that someone asks you about something you’re perusing, you almost always get valuable information and a decent, brief conversation with someone with similar interests. Kind of like Amazon reviews without the typing.

So it has to be a combination of all these things, I suspect. And what a wonderful thing that we have bookstores so we can get that “charge.” Ah, but there’s the rub. How long are we going to have the privilege of a physical bookstore? Will Amazon or B&N be able to create an experience wherein you can quickly and enjoyably fill your entire reading list for a year in 30 minutes of browsing? And what about the rest of those intangibles?

On a recent trip to the Knoxville Barnes & Noble, the experience just wasn’t the same. Though it’s been my favorite bookstore for a long time, this time was different. The books seemed to be in more disarray. You’d pick up a book to find it part of a series and none of the other books in the series was present for purchase. There was so much space devoted to nicknacks, games, and bargain-books that the new book areas (other than the top-seller racks) seemed to be suffering. The periodicals were awesome, as always. And honestly, I’m glad they’ve expanded their board game section (check out Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan!). But somewhere in the back of my mind it felt like the beginning of the end. Even that thought is extremely sad to me.


Just a couple of the surfaces in my house covered with books.

Though I love my Kindle(s), I cannot imagine a world without physical books.
1. When the power is out, or if an EMP hits us, you can still pick up a book and read. Not necessarily so with an e-Reader.
2. Books make great decorating elements in your house. Shelves were MADE for them. If you could use Kindles for that, believe me, we’d know. In my family of 7 kids, we have 6 Kindles and 2 iPads. Not so great-looking on a shelf.
3. Books are physical objects and therefore have value. Old, rare books have immense value. Not so with an ePub.
4. Ever worry that at some point the country is going to censor your reading? That’s going to be a lot harder to do with physical books than ePub’s. (They’ll just wipe out your Amazon account and then where will you be?)
5. A Kindle “library” is no excuse to build a room where you go to read. On the other hand, in our house, we are going to be creating a room full of beautiful shelves, upon which we will place in some sort of order thousands of beautiful books. Just being there will induce a state of reading nirvana.

So, here’s my thought of the bookstore of the future (may they live overlong!):

It’ll be a place where you can go to purchase p-books (using ILMK parlance), of course. Probably just the latest best-sellers, but that’s still ok. Maybe you’ll be able to purchase limited editions or specially-bound versions of particularly noteworthy works.

My vision would call for an even larger physical bookstore because it would still have tons of books. Even more than current large bookstores. But instead of having 10 copies of Harry Potter 7, 7 copies of HP 6, 4 copies of HP 5, several different boxed sets (hardbound, softbound, mass market), they would have one copy of each in paperback (this is a bad example because they’ll always have HP on the bestseller list, I would imagine).

And here’s the twist: you would scan your portable device on the bar-reader and that would allow you to download the “sample chapter” of the book on your device. Then you could go sit in a corner and see if the book holds your attention. And when you choose to “buy” the book, your store still gets credit for it.

There will still be a coffee shop in the corner, of course. Bargain book sections, popular nicknacks, board games, and the like. The periodical section may be the same way as the p-book section. But because they only have to buy one copy of each, they could have a world-wide selection of almost every periodical in print. They would make their profit on the sell-through cut they get.

In return, the customers still get the benefits of a real bookstore, we ensure the survival of those great institutions, and yet we still have the benefits our eReaders afford us as well.

I’d love to hear feedback on this! Pleas tell me what you think the bookstore of the future will be like. Or if you think they’ll all go the route of Borders.

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