What Does the Future of Bookstores Look Like?

It has been nearly three years since I last entered a bookstore with the intention of making a purchase. By no coincidence, it has also been nearly three years since I first joined Amazon Prime, where I have too often experienced the thrill of selecting the “1-Click” button, thus summoning a stack of books to appear on my doorstep, at a discounted rate, in two days time. The internet is great.

However, yesterday on my way home, I decided to stop at a Barnes & Noble and do two things:

  1. Buy some books.
  2. Assess the life expectancy of the retail chain.

In buying my books, I set three guidelines:

  1. I couldn’t buy any of the dozens of books that are currently on my Amazon Watch List.
  2. I couldn’t look up the prices of any books.
  3. I couldn’t spend more than $60.00.

As I walked across the parking lot and into Barnes & Noble, I expected the store to be nearly vacant; for its only clientele to be individuals who didn’t know how to turn on a computer, much less order something from Amazon.

To my surprise, the bookstore was buzzing. People were enthusiastically searching high and low for books, talking to their friends, and asking store employees for advice. There was even a line at the register. (Did I mention this was at noon on a Tuesday?)

After this initial shock, I began walking around the bookstore, observing the clientele and looking for books that either caught my interest or had yet to be moved to my Amazon cart.

One of the first things that I noticed while walking through the store was that I was one of the only customers shopping alone. Everyone else seemed to be with a friend, spouse, or child. They were debating which books to buy, discussing the literary merits of a certain novel, or bemoaning the fact that a book was out of stock or not yet available in paperback.

It reminded me of the last time I can remember buying a book at Barnes & Noble.

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In 2013, a friend and I were at a conference, bored to death. We went to purchase a coffee from Starbucks and decided to further delay our return to whatever workshop session we were attending with a trip to Barnes & Noble. As we walked around the store, examining the books, we both found ourselves itching to buy something to read. Discussing the merits of a given novel, subject, or author made the desire to make a purchase even greater, it made buying a book an experience. Traveling through the maze of bookshelves, judging a book by its cover, and buying it because it looked funny, cool, or scary made me feel like a little kid.

As we wandered through the maze of novels, a stout paperback caught my eye: Atlas Shrugged. I picked up Ayn Rand’s magnum opus and handed it to my friend (a self-proclaimed conservative) who, after saying that he had been meaning to read it for some time, decided to buy it. After seeing how enthusiastic he was, I decided that I too would purchase the novel. At that time, I thought Paul Ryan was the future of the Republican Party so I figured it would be a good idea to try and understand his philosophy.

It was in this moment that I realized that the true value of a bookstore is not merely buying a book, it is discovering a book(s) with other people.

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The most cliche criticism of the "Internet Age" is people have grown more antisocial: “No one talks anymore, they all have their ear buds in!; No one goes shopping anymore, people just sit on their couch and have stuff delivered!

And while these criticisms are fair, they ignore the fact that, as billionaire investor Chris Sacca recently pointed out on an episode of "The Bill Simmons Podcast," people still want to do things together.

We still go to movie theatres, arenas, stadiums, and amusement parks. Apps like Periscope and Facebook Live show that we still want to experience the latest developments in politics, sports, and television together.

It is this want to do things together, the want for a treasure-hunt-like experience, that is the great differentiator between bookstores and Amazon. The experience of scanning the shelves, wandering through the aisles, and holding a new book in one’s hand is simply not the same as clicking the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” arrow. And if bookstores want to be around in the future, it is this feeling that they must capture.

And while I love Barnes & Noble, they have done a terrible job capturing this feeling. There are hardly any books that aren’t hits or classics. (f an alien were to visit Barnes & Noble, they would think that JK Rowling, Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway, and Bill O’Reilly were our planet’s four greatest literary minds. It stifles the sense of discovery that we should have when we enter a bookstore. Nowadays, we go to stores not to buy what we want or need, but to find things that we don’t even know we want yet. This is why we love used bookstores and their mazes of dusty shelves.

It’s time for Barnes & Noble to ditch the CD and DVD section, ditch the long table with “Must Reads” sprawled across it, and replace them with big, overflowing bookshelves that emulate the feeling of a used book store. People will pay slightly more for their books (like I did) for the same reason they spend money going out to eat, or seeing “Star Wars” three times in theaters instead of just buying it on Blue-Ray: the experience.

Though Barnes & Noble is not a cool used-bookstore, I still had a fun time spending my 60 bucks. Here’s what I bought:

By Bill Simmons

I’ve been meaning to read this book forever. As a self-proclaimed Bill Simmons fan, it’s kind-of embarrassing that I haven’t, but I will now! When I saw a lonely copy sitting on the bottom shelf of the sports section, I new I had to buy it.

Price Paid at Barnes & Noble: $20.00

Price I Could Have Paid at Amazon: $13.59

By Shakespeare

Before people jump all over me in the comments, let me just say, yes, I have read Hamlet --several times. I bought this because I love the cover and I firmly believe that one can never have enough Shakespeare lying around. Also, the only other copy I have of the play is in The Norton Shakespeare, which weighs more than the bookshelf it sits on.

Price Paid at Barnes & Noble: $7.95

Price I Could Have Paid at Amazon: I kind of cheated on this one. It’s part of the Barnes & Noble Shakespeare Collection and can only be bought used on Amazon. I didn’t know this at the time, I swear.

By George Orwell

Down and Out in Paris and London is a two-part memoir by Orwell that chronicles his travels as a poor man in, you guessed it, Paris and London. Some time ago, I heard Louis CK reference this book as an inspiration for “Louis." At the time, I meant to add it to my Amazon cart but, much to Barnes & Nobles' benefit, I forgot to do so.

Price Paid at Barnes & Noble $14.95

Price I Could Have Paid at Amazon: $10.83

By John Kennedy Toole

As you may have guessed, it was the cover art that caught my attention. Toole’s posthumously published novel about Ignatius Reilly is one that I have also had on my “To-Read” list for awhile. Had I not come across it at the store who knows how long it would have taken me to add it to the abyss that is my Amazon cart.

Price I Paid: $16.00

Price I Could Have Paid on Amazon: $9.52

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