Amazon flaunts a lot of merchandising muscle. But Kenyon's chief bookseller, Jim Huang, argues that physical bookstores will survive, and can thrive, because they — uniquely — offer something that people have always craved.
Not long ago, the New York Times reported on Amazon’s response to the “sock puppet” review controversy (“Giving Mom’s Book Five Stars? Amazon May Cull Your Review,” December 22, 2012). Authors were creating fake identities—sock puppets—to tout their own books in “reader” reviews on Amazon’s pages. The online retailer responded by trying to remove reviews it thought might be suspect. At the end of the article, the Times quoted a “weary” book-buyer: “There are so many fake reviews that I’m often better off just walking into a physical store and picking an item off the shelf at random.”
From a customer standpoint, the word “random” might make sense. But from the store’s perspective, there’s nothing random about this at all. That book is put on that shelf on purpose. Folks at the store have surveyed what’s out there, looked at price and availability, evaluated the supplier’s reputation and reliability, and considered the preferences and needs of the store’s clientele. The store’s buyers have made a choice to stock that book, and worked with the store’s visual merchandiser to display it in an appealing and effective manner.
When we think about the past, present, and future of bookstores, there’s really only one thing that matters: the store’s role in connecting readers with books and, by extension, with the words, experiences, and ideas that books embody. It’s a vital connection, about as intimate a connection as we ever experience. Once when I was helping a customer choose a book, she said, “This is like deciding who I’m going to sleep with tonight.” I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, and I chose to overlook the possibility that she viewed the store as a brothel. But I understood immediately where she was coming from. If we stay focused on connection—who we want facilitating those connections and how they are decided—then there’s really no reason to ever doubt that the future of bookstores is secure.
To be sure, bookstores face challenges. Technology and the Internet have altered the business, more so for books than any other category of retail. Amazon has forced bookstores to up their game. Stores that were unable or unwilling to evolve have closed. Stores that are still standing must develop and exploit their strengths. More encouraging, we are seeing a wave of post-Amazon book shop openings, new businesses that are confident about the strength and value of the bookstore.
Amazon also asks us to read a different kind of book, one made up of pixels on screens instead of ink on paper. It’s not the first company to try to persuade folks to take up e-books, but the first to do so successfully. Other booksellers have made some effort to play catch-up in the digital realm. But bookstores also recognize that e-books are not necessarily in our wheelhouse. We know that readers have a different relationship with digital text, and we understand that our strength lies in physical text. We enable and nurture the connection and the pride of ownership that comes only with real books.
If you spend much time reading about the book business online, you’ll find that there’s a vocal contingent of naysayers who believe that stores have no strengths, that it’s impossible to achieve the reach of Amazon or to be as efficient as Amazon. The Seattle behemoth can deliver hundreds of thousands of texts over the ether directly to your device, wherever you are; it’s hard to imagine how any neighborhood bookstore can ever match that efficiency. But it’s important to note that those naysayers are largely online, on Amazon’s turf. They’re judging neighborhood bookstores by Amazon standards, the physical as if it’s virtual.
Your community bookstore isn’t about delivering every book to every person everywhere. We’re not about backward-looking algorithms that try to mathematically predict what you might like tomorrow based on what happened yesterday. Instead, bookstores practice a kind of forward-looking alchemy, working to find the right books for their communities and to offer titles you don’t yet know you want. Algorithms may be efficient, but they lack the imagination that identifies connections which can’t be fathomed. How do you explain whom you want to sleep with tonight?
Your bookstore is a gathering place, a space in which you, your family, your friends, your colleagues, and your neighbors encounter a carefully curated collection of titles, books selected with you in mind. It’s the place where booksellers—flesh and blood people who are also part of your community—facilitate and orchestrate your connection to the words, ideas, experiences, and perspectives that enrich your lives and deepen your connections with others.
Isn’t connection what humans have always craved and will always seek? Don’t we need those connections to be made by people, not by equations? Or by sock puppets?
Do bookstores have a future? You might as well ask if humans have a future.