Imagine a world with no bookstores. Personally, I just won't do it, because for me, having visited at least one bookstore almost every day for the last week, this thought kept returning: bookstores are magical places. I feel great sadness when I read the predictions that the future of physical bookstores is doomed. Currently 70% of all books are still purchased from bookstores and 30% purchased online, either as hard copies or e-books, but the forecasts are that these numbers are changing so rapidly that within a few years online book sales will be 75%, leaving bookstores with only 25% of all book sales. How will bookstores survive?
I do admit that I did visit a virtual bookstore this week as well, because the books I wanted weren't stocked in my local Chapters/Indigo store here in Toronto. That virtual visit was just not the same though. Sure, I ordered books, one of which I'd just read cover to cover online. In fact, this is the first book I've ever fully read that way, and, I confess, it just might be the last. Yes, I'd been able to download a free Kindle for my Mac and the book Do The Work by Steven Pressfield, the second release from Seth Godin's new Domino Project, had been delivered as promised, directly to my Kindle on release date, free of charge. It took me almost three weeks to break down and check out the book. Once there, the book fully engaged me and I found it absolutely brilliant, reading it in one sitting. It spoke to me personally so loudly that after I finished reading it online, I decided to order a "real" copy and to recommend it to everyone I know. However, to me, a book is not really a book unless I can hold it and touch it and be with it and sometimes even own it. Virtual books do not feel real to me. Some habits die hard, I guess. Thank goodness.
Inquisitive me decided to question about two dozen people, all from different age groups and backgrounds, about their preferences when it comes to buying books. Categorically everyone I asked still wants real books and the opportunity to find those books in physical bookstores. People will order online if they don't have the time to visit the bookstore or if the book isn't in stock close by, but generally real bookstore experiences are what the people I asked still want.
When I step into a bookstore, I'm transported to as many different worlds as I want to visit. Anything and everything is there within a few steps of where I enter. Turn left, I'm in the worlds of art and photography. Turn right, the worlds of travel or fitness or cooking. Walk straight, the worlds of sports or business. It is all there calling to me to have an experience, an adventure. A researcher at heart, I'm always delighted to make mental notes of the variety of people I see every time I visit a bookstore. It doesn't matter the time of day or even what day it is. People are browsing, having a tea or coffee and wandering or meeting with friends, checking out possibilities and making purchases.
In fact, Heather Reisman, CEO of Chapters/Indigo, Canada's largest bookstore chain with 96 stores, knows that online book sales will erode 40% of her in-store sales within the next five years, and she is taking steps to recreate the bookstore experience for her customers. In her terms she sees her stores as "cultural department stores."
E-book sales topped paperback sales for the first time in February of this year and although they were at a mere $1 billion dollars in 2010 they are expected to explode and triple to almost $3 billion by 2015. Amazon reported in January of this year that it now sells more Kindle books than paperback books -- 115 e-books for every 100 paperbacks in the U.S.
So Reisman, following in the steps of Howard Schultz of Starbucks, is re-envisioning how her stores must change in order to survive. She is adjusting the mix in her stores, to include more non-book items, like candles, stationary and picture frames, shifting the mix over the next two to three years, so that non-book sales will account for 40 percent of the stores sales, versus the current 15 percent. Borders, the second largest U.S. book chain, is a partner with Indigo in its Kobo book reader, and is adopting similar plans to Ms. Reisman, by also expanding into non-books. Having filed for bankruptcy protection in February and closing about 30% of their stores, Borders is trying to shift its sales mix to just 40 to 45 percent books in five years from about 70 percent today, reported president Mike Edwards. He envisages Borders morphing into a "community centre," expanding its café and adding other food franchises to bring in traffic. Reisman too, whose stores already have Starbucks cafés, is attempting to recapture the bookstore experience, by bringing back the soft comfy chairs, finally inviting people back in to the stores, to hang out and stay awhile.
I believe in bookstores, in the experience of being in a bookstore. When I read that one of the possible threats to the future of bookstores is the diminished appetite for books, I believe I gasped in horror. I'm back to being the little four year old girl reading to her kindergarden class and who, at this early age, developed a lifelong love of books. When I step into a bookstore, I'm the kid in the candy store, but it's not candy I'm wanting to eat, but words and ideas I'm devouring, and can never seem to get enough of. The bookshelves are filled with possibilities and everywhere I turn is something new and intriguing and inviting, calling out to me. I simply cannot have this same experience online. So, yes, I will continue to buy books from bookstores and am committed to continue my love affair with physical books, refusing to imagine a future without bookstores to buy them in. I realize bookstores will have to change to meet the times, and I do know that change can be good. I leave you with this question -- how do you envision bookstores of the future?