Could more bookstores survive if they act like libraries?
Are libraries helping millennials be even more antisocial?
I stood at the library counter a couple of weeks ago. And that’s when it hit me that I have not talked to a librarian in all of 2019. I still go to libraries a couple of times a month, but I just have no real reason to talk to the librarians.
When I want to renew or reserve a book that I’m not sure I want to buy, I pull out my smartphone and click a few buttons. When I physically walk into a library to get my book(s), I go straight to the shelves and then the self-service kiosk to punch in my library card number and scan the codes. And if there’s a book I want that’s not at the library yet, I just fill in the info under “Suggest a Purchase.”
But a few weeks ago, I couldn’t find my library card (for the first time ever) so I had to walk over to the counter to figure out what I was supposed to do next. I stood there cracking jokes with a librarian about losing things (I once “lost” my smartphone while talking on it; she “lost” her glasses that were sitting on top of her head) and pondered on just how much I ignore the human connection in these places. Give or take the one librarian I speak to often — mainly so I can say “Bye, Felicia” to her as I walk out the door (her real name is Felicia so I know “Friday” was a love-hate movie for her) — there’s no reason I need to talk to anyone inside.
But as a bookworm who used to work at the now-closed Borders, I started wondering how is it that libraries manage to survive while bookstores are closing?
I temporarily suspended my library card to check all my pockets at home, but by the time I came back to get a new one, I found out my library card was in a lost-and-found drawer that that librarian hadn’t checked. And off I went right back to those kiosks, computers and my smartphone to not talk to librarians again. But as a bookworm who used to work at the now-closed Borders, I started wondering how is it that libraries manage to survive while bookstores are closing?
Obviously not paying for a book is a factor in why libraries are popular for some. There’s also a matter of funding. The American Library Association (ALA) is a member of the Committee for Education Funding, and their Title IV Part A received an additional $70 million for state grants under the Every Student Succeeds Act. This program will support school programs and potentially school libraries. Another $70 million for Perkins Career and Technical Education (CTE) state grants will provide more low-interest loans for nontraditional learners in schools and libraries, according to American Libraries magazine.
Meanwhile for-profit independent bookstores were eaten up by bigger retail chains such as Border’s Books, Music and Cafe. Then Border’s was bought out by Barnes & Noble or their bookstore locations closed altogether. Even if you click on Borders.com, the site redirects to its former competitor.
And one of the main reasons that Barnes & Noble managed to survive while Border’s didn’t was because they understood how important digital books were. They promoted the hell out of their e-reader The Nook long before I fully understood its purpose. When I worked at Border’s Books during my undergrad years, the bookstore franchise had the ambiance of what Starbucks is now — a place to eat, drink, chat for hours and take up table space to create a temporary office space (without paying WeWork prices). But Border’s Books still wasn’t fully embracing technology the way they should have.
It’s not like people are emptying Barnes & Noble bookstore shelves. Generally speaking, people (specifically Generation X, Y and millennials) will still walk into bookstores, check the retail price and see what online retailers (Amazon and the now-defunct Half) are charging for the same book. They “window shop” in bookstores and may even have the audacity to buy that book online while still standing in the store.
And this year, Barnes & Noble was acquired by the hedge fund Elliott Advisors for $638 million, a relief to publishers and agents that the largest bookstore chain in the United States might go kaput. But in a digital world where economical shoppers still aren’t really willing to pony up the money for high-priced books, what can bookstores do besides embrace a digital space?
In my opinion, bookstores may want to follow a similar motto of libraries — and Macy’s department store. While it may seem puzzling that a higher-priced retailer like Macy’s would partner up with a thrift store like thredUP, it makes sense. The generation they’re trying to cater to is shying away from fast fashion and exorbitant rates. And the secondhand experience is not frowned on the way it used to be.*
If Barnes & Noble would be willing to trade in or buy back used books, and give customers the opportunity to get “free” books in exchange for it, this may may make more customers come in and stick around for awhile. Because if their current rates and paid membership fees aren’t doing the trick, they’re going to have to bend in one way or another. Otherwise, I believe Barnes & Noble will go in the same direction Border’s did. Amazon is still beating out both companies either way, and we already know what relentless competitors like Amazon did do to Diapers.com.
* Confession: I have never shopped at a thrift store. I donate clothing to charitable organizations and thrift stores regularly though.