February 12, 2013

Would you pay for admission to a bookstore?


Among stores that are good enough that we don’t need to turn them into museums of themselves: the lovely Changing Hands in Tempe

Only if you receive eucalyptus-infused hot towels and a complimentary drink on the way in, right?

In a recent panel discussion with the BBC, UK HarperCollins CEO Victoria Barnsley mentioned that in light of the recent trend toward showrooming — browsing through books in a bookstore but then purchasing them online from a competitor — bookstores might be well advised to begin charging for the privilege of browsing their wares. Or at least, she said, the idea is “not insane.”

From The Bookseller:

Citing a reported figure that only 35% of fiction in the UK is bought through a physical bookshop, Barnsley commented: “They are under enormous pressure,” suggesting that asking customers to “pay for the privilege of browsing” was not an insane concept in the current environment. Certain shoeshops in the US are already charging customers to try on shoes, she noted.

Here in the states Ron Charles picked up the story and got in touch with the new owners of DC’s Politics & Prose, among others.

“If it comes to charging admission for customers to browse, we’re done,” said Mark Laframboise, the manager of Politics & Prose in Washington. Rather than expect customers to pay more, he placed the onus on publishers. “What we need is some recognition from publishers that people are learning about books at brick-and-mortar bookstores and buying them through a multitude of channels and platforms. Publishers, in recognition of this, should offer increased co-op and increased discounts to stores.”

Laframboise is correct that if it comes to charging admission, stores like Politics & Prose, the type of store we know and love, the essence of what we’re discussing when we talk about indie booksellers, that type of store will indeed be done.

Bookstores charge for books. If they also charge for browsing, it’s an admission that the books themselves are not really the point. Charging to browse is a statement that what we care about is the atmosphere of a bookstore. Charging admission turns every bookstore into a Williamsburg, Virginia, a Potemkin village. I don’t think that is a bad thing, per se. I like the affect of bookstores, I like the idea, the seeming, of browsing through book stacks in a store enough that I would certainly be willing to pay for the right, to treat it as an amusement park. Imagine a store that epitomizes what we think of when we say “bookstore” — maybe there would be a rotating cast of mascot cats, artfully hidden literary gems secreted away on certain shelves, continually refreshed for the delight of browsers like me. I am absolutely the market for BookstoreLand(TM).

But we aren’t there yet. Bookstores are still vibrant, even with the scourge of showrooming. More stores open continually in this city, in this country, and even in the UK, though they’re going through a particularly dark patch at the moment. And those stores are full of surprises, including things that test the boundary of what we expect from a bookstore. We don’t need the simulacra just yet, thank you, when the reality, even without admission, is still so damned interesting.



Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.