Monday, August 24, 2009

What Do You Want From Your Local Bookstore?

A few weeks ago I read this really interesting blog post on BookSquare, about the first consumer research study that had been done, quite recently as it happens, on what people want from their bookstores. Apparently no one had ever thought to do a study like this before, and the findings were interesting. I won't repeat them here; you can visit the article to see for yourself.

First of all, my findings are highly unscientific and based purely on my own observations. And I may very well be mistaken. But it's all enough to make me wonder if independent bookstores are doing enough to reach out to an audience that's economically diverse and diverse in its tastes, as well as diverse culturally. I understand that paying full price for books is a middle class luxury, and one available to fewer and fewer of us. And I know indie bookstores can't compete on price with Amazon or even the big chains. But I'm wondering if that's the whole story.

When I go into any of the indies in my area, the first and most obvious thing I notice is that the crowd tends to be more or less female and more or less middle class in appearance. It's pretty well documented that most readers are women and it makes sense that most people paying full price for books are middle class. I also notice a few things about the books on offer- again, in broad terms. I notice a good selection of "Indie Next List" type fiction and nonfiction, I notice that some stores do better than others at hand-selecting titles not of the "Indie Next List" type, and I notice a distinct lack of genre fiction. I notice a preponderance of highbrow-ish literary fiction and only a smattering of popular fiction and nonfiction. The toney indie I shop most often, for example, would never be caught dead selling the upcoming Kathy Griffin memoir, or any other celebrity biography for that matter. And indie bookstores don't seem to be selling ebooks yet either.

What I'm wondering today is- assuming there is an indie bookstore near to you, and that you're aware of the option to shop indie online, apart from price, what reasons would you have for not shopping them? I'm not asking this question because I want to judge anyone or even argue- I'm just genuinely curious. What are they not doing for you? What do they not have? Does your local indie not stock the genre you read, like romance or Christian fiction or serious science fiction or fantasy? Without naming names, do you find the selections bland, or unimaginative, or just the same everywhere you go? Do they seem elitist? Would you be more interested if you were able to buy ebooks from indies? Those of you who love indie bookstores know what keeps you coming back for more- but for those of you who don't, what keeps you out?

18 comments:

Ruth @ Bookish Ruth said...

I love my local indie, but honestly, I can't afford to shop there anymore. This bothers me, and I try to go in and buy something whenever possible, but I find myself heading to Amazon or Target more and more for books.

Aside from prices, my biggest frustration with any brick and mortar bookstore (not just indies) is getting there only to discover that the book I'm there to buy (not an obscure title) is not available. I know that I can order the book and go back for it, but that defeats the purpose of the original trip to the store. I wish I had a dime for every time I went to a bookstore for the first book in a series and found books two, three and five (usually multiple copies) on the shelf with no sign of book one.

bermudaonion said...

We live in a medium size metropolitan area and the local indie is on the other side of town from us. I make it a point to stop there when I'm on that side of town, but that's not very often. Our indie's selection of books is okay and they do discount their top sellers and staff picks, but the store is in serious need of renovation. The carpets are worn, the lighting is bad, etc. I rarely buy books on line, but do go to the big chains fairly often.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I go to indies because I love browsing through the quirky selections, because I love the non-big-box atmosphere, because I love the selection of local books and items that you usually can't find even in the big box, because the employees usually have an interesting section for their own choices for reading which are annotated, and because if there is a multicultural bookstore in the area, it will be the indie.

As to whether I *buy* something there, that's a different question. If we are in a different city than home, we almost always buy something about the local area or a quirky book find. If we are at home, I am more likely to buy non-book items (cards, crafts, etcs.) and buy the books (which can be rather expensive these days) online, to save money. But I do like to buy what I can from the indie, to provide a little support.

Fibro Witch said...

The problem with any brick and mortar store is they have only 'so much' space. Unless your looking for something that came out recently, or a major constant seller a small book store will not have it. Each unsold book cost the store money. So they are not going to stock the first issue of a 4 book trilogy(sorry geek cred). Because if your not into the trilogy by book 3, your not interested.

Even Amazon can't have every book in stock. They sell books for other book sellers. When I order from Amazon, especially used books I get them from independent book stores around the country.

I do most of my book buying at science fiction conventions. Unless there is a specific book coming out, which I then contact my local SF book seller and ask him to reserve a copy for me.

It also helps to have a good relationship with your local book store. Any book store. My brother works for a B&N. He frequently has the same complaint about people expecting his mega store to have every book every published.

His suggestion is for people who want a specific book, right now, is to call local book stores and find one who has the book available.

Unless the book is a huge seller, or has been out for only a few months, it will not be on the shelves of a small book store. Most likely not on the shelves of a mega book store either.

Wow this comment is turning into a blog post of it's own. So glad I decided to get off the couch and go outside.

Marie said...

I live near The Strand so... talk about an AMAZING indie bookstore. I don't need to go any where else!

Kathleen said...

This is a great topic. I support indie stores whenever I can. I'm ashamed to admit that I am better about doing this when I am traveling and have time to visit new ones. Price is the biggest issue for me. I can find what I want at Amazon and get it at the best price. It pains me to say it because I love a good indie store but price is the biggest consideration for me. I survive by going to the library, shopping for most of my books on Amazon, and visiting an indie store to pick up several titles when I am traveling. I'd love to shop only at indie stores...heck, I'd love to own one but unfortunately the internet (Amazon and others) stores have all but killed the indies.

Zibilee said...

I think that there are only a couple of indie stores in my area, and the reason that I don't tend to frequent them is because on the occasion I had to visit, the woman in the shop seemed a bit rude. I was really excited to have stumbled upon the shop, and was asking a few questions, and it seemed to me like she just didn't want to be bothered. I have not visited the other shop yet, but I really rather prefer to shop online, where I can order from a wide selection of shops and get anything that I want. I guess it would probably be better to shop at my local indie store, but I am a little caught up in habit, and I don't have to deal any attitudes when I shop online.

sanctimommy said...

I try to shop Indie, but my interests tend to be slightly esoteric. The Harvard Bookstore is great for that: the small suburban indie near me not so much.

But mainly, the books that I'm interested in purchasing (as opposed to the ones that I just want to read once and then return to the library) tend to be slightly out of the mainstream: either about education or childrearing or crafts.

There is an EXCELLENT children's bookstore near me, and I try to shop there whenever possible. They just moved into a larger spot and it's really very nice and they have an amazing selection.

King Rat said...

I don't go to "independent" bookstores except for author signings and a couple of specialty stores. I'm not willing to pay a bunch more for a book, and most indies don't distinguish themselves in other ways. "Quirky" selections don't interest me. The smaller bookstores around Seattle that I go to are Elliott Bay for signings and employee recommendations, Seattle Mystery Bookshop for their great mystery selection, and the University Bookstore for science fiction. There's also a leftist bookstore where i'd go if I was a committed leftist. To me, a bookstore really needs to have a good specialization or something to add over the big stores besides being "local".

Marie said...

Ruth, one solution to that would be to check their stock online and then special-order (or not) what you're looking for. With Borders you can reserve a book for in-store pickup so you know it will be there.

Fibro Witch, Yes. I understand that no bookstore can be all things to all people. What I'm hoping to generate by this post is some idea of the big-picture issues keeping people out of local stores. Even if the answers aren't easy to find, it's still worth it to ask the question.

Marie said...

Kathleen- but the thing is, it isn't big bad Amazon killing the indies- it's consumers. So consumers have to vote with their dollar and if we all decide collectively, by our own choices, that we want to live in a world without local bookstores then that's what we'll get.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

King Rat - interesting about scifi at the University Bookstore in Seattle. I found one of the best scifi selections anywhere at the airport bookstore in San Francisco! I guess you never know where there will be an innovative (bold? eclectic? specialized?) person in charge of buying!

I wanted to add that I will frequent an indie if it has a good coffee/bakery section!

Marie said...

Rhapsody- LOL, at one of my local indies I probably spend more money on cookies than on books!

Shari said...

Honestly, price is the only thing keeping me from shopping more regularly at the indies. My tastes skew towards contemporary literary fiction, with a bit of mystery and other "fluff" thrown in. I go to Brookline Booksmith and Harvard Book Store regularly to browse remainders and the used selection and very often find something. I find it interesting that the indie remainders sections, particularly Booksmith, DO tend to have a few more "low-brow" books.

The closest book stores to my house are the now-shuttered Kate's Mystery Books; McIntyre and Moore, which doesn't have enough fiction for my tastes; and Porter Square Books. When I first moved to my neighborhood, I imagined I'd spend a lot of time in Porter Square Books but I don't like it that much. I can't put my finger on why, but something about the books available there seems somewhat off. Maybe because I'm more used to The Coop/Booksmith/Harvard Book Store selections? Or maybe because, if I recall correctly, sci-fi is right at the front. Ultimately, however, I'm glad for its neighborhood presence and the cafe in front of the store!

Donna said...

Indie bookstores all seem to have a thing for piping in dirge-like chamber music, New Orleans funeral marches, and (shudder) Musak. Why do they assume a musical taste based on your ability to read?? Borders, on the other hand, has nifty, lively music so good I've actually asked what they are playing so I can buy it.

In general, I prefer Indies with a point of view. The much lamented Kate's Mystery in Cambridge comes to mind. There I could be guaranteed to find books I hadn't heard of in a genre I enjoy.

Amy said...

I have spent ten years working in the retail and library book world and there is one thing I look for in a bookstore: a KNOWLEDGABLE helpful staff. I work really hard to keep up with current book offerings and to educate myself on new titles. I expect people who work in the field to do the same. While it isn't impossible for a bookseller to know every book out there, they should now the latest hot titles and where to find them in the store.

Marie said...

Shari- I know what you mean about Porter Square Books. I like it there but sometimes- meh. That's the store I was talking about to rhapsodyinbooks, where I like the cookies as much (if not more!) than the book selection!

Marie said...

Zibilee, I'm sorry that happened to you and it's unfortunate that one rude person was enough to keep you out.

King Rat- fair enough. Specialty bookstores are a great treat when we have good ones nearby, for sure.

Sanctimommy- I know what you mean about some of the smaller suburban places. Some have gone out of business in the last couple of years that honestly, I'm not sorry to see go because it didn't seem like they were doing a good job of supporting their customers. (The Waldenbooks in Lexington comes to mind.) We're lucky to have an incredible metro area with lots of great places, so that when some go, there are still lots left.