Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Bookstore Dilemma

Recently, I went to a fantastic bookstore in the lower east side of Manhattan. (A word of warning, I am apt to think nearly all bookstores are fantastic). I was particularly impressed by their in store cafe. A cafe dedicated to books. The wallpaper was created from old monograph pages, pile of books hang from the ceiling, and even the menu is comprised of food related quotes from novels. Books wear with use; words fade, pages rip, and content comes outdated. However, "book," as object, does not lose its aesthetic and perhaps psychological appeal. An appeal the McNally Jackson Books seems to have capitalized on.

On this horribly rainy Saturday, McNally Jackson was packed. The cafe was standing room only and the bookstore entrance was clogged with drenched umbrellas of every color and size imaginable. The patrons that weaved in and out of the shelves seemed to know the store well. These were no tourists, and McNally Jackson was not a serendipitous shelter from the hurricane force winds. New Yorkers had specifically chosen to brave the elements to visit this bibliographic haven; further evidence of the powerful appeal of the "book."

Why, then, I asked myself, while I reverently thumbed the spine of Pevear and Volokhonsky's Dostoevsky translation, is a bookstore filled on even the worst of days and a library a couple blocks away hosted only a handful of patrons?

Bookstores, as a rule do not benefit from patrons idly flipping through the pages of their new favorite author. In fact, one would assume a business model that does not require a purchase to enjoy the merchandise would be fundamentally flawed.

In contrast, public libraries actually materially benefit from patrons who peruse magazines, thumb through novels, and browse the internet. Each book pulled and re-shelved adds to circulation statistics. Those statistics are the basis of public funding. (So, as a side note, the next time you are in a library and are tempted to re-shelve your own books, because you know the Dewey Decimal System just as well as the next person, resist that temptation. The books left on the re-shelve carts are often scanned before they are re-shelved to collect statistics on which books are used, even if they are not checked out.)

While I do not pretend to fully understand the economic effects of the bookstore business model, I have to ask myself: what is a for-profit bookstore doing that is so much more attractive to patrons than what the local library is doing? What structural, philosophical, aesthetic or environmental changes should be made? In short, what are we missing? Atmosphere? Attitude? Service? Scones? While I would venture to guess that most public libraries lack something in all of these areas, I am curious to know what changes people think are the most crucial.


  1. May i propose a honeymoon destination, or just a mind-blowing trip, to Portland OR to visit Powell's City of Books. By far the biggest, coolest, most amazing bookstore I've ever seen. Plus, they had 5 (five!) copies of my favorite book, the one i can only find on Ebay and overseas. *sigh* i want to go back!



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