This article appeared on Futurbook.net on 4/4/14 - If you're interested in books, bookselling and the future both, you should be reading FUTUREBOOK and digital blog from The BOOKSELLER
While reports of the death of the book seem to be greatly exaggerated - recent findings show that ebooks continue to do well in fiction and non-fiction categories, where a linear narrative prevails, other types of ebooks such as cookbooks, how to, and other non-fiction categories have yet to show real strength. This, despite the much touted possibilities of multimedia that will revolutionize the reading experience. Other reports indicate that younger readers still favor books, in part because they think ebooks ought to be free.
What is perhaps in greater danger is the bookstore itself. To understand where the bookstore may be headed, it’s important to look back at where it came from and to see how changes in the book itself resulted in the bookstore as it is today.
Technological changes in printing, publishing and distribution drove changes in the book over the past century. In the 1890’s, cheaper faster printing using steam- powered presses helped decrease the cost of publishing and led to the rise of the “pulp” magazine. These 7x10 inch magazines made with cheap wood pulp featured provocative colorful covers over ragged untrimmed pages filled with mysteries and romances offered inexpensive entertainment and an outlet for aspiring writers.
In 1939 Simon and Schuster introduced it’s Pocket Book imprint officially introducing the “mass market” paperback and establishing the hardback to softcover life cycle of the book. Roscoe Fawcett’s introduction of his “Gold Metal” paperback originals in 1945 offered another avenue for pulp and other writers, and helped establish the genres that we expect to find in a modern bookstore. The “mass market” paperback with it’s small form factor and low price point made books accessible to everyone. Drugstores and “Five and Dimes” could easily display a rack of paperbacks next to their magazines. Magazine distributors, of which Fawcett was one, added paperbacks to their newsstands and kiosks.
While the popularity of paperbacks would push books and publishing further into the mainstream, the bookstore remained relatively unchanged. Up until the middle of the 20th century, bookstores were largely set up to accommodate and exhibit the publishers latest offerings. Books arrived seasonally and were divided primarily into Fiction, Non-fiction and Poetry. Religious texts and Reference books were likely to have their own place, but the myriad categories that we have come to expect in a bookstore were not the norm. In the 1940’s and 50’s, these independently owned bookstores could be found primarily in the cities.
The arrival of the suburban shopping mall in the 60’s and 70’s saw the rise of bookstore chains. Marshall Smith, a true innovator in retailing, opened his first Paperback Booksmith in Brookline, MA in 1961. He created a franchise business to enable individuals to enter the book trade. Paperback Booksmith shipped new titles from a centralized warehouse and formalized a template for these new smaller stores. Franchisee’s would place reorders using a card system, set up by section, not publisher, and call in orders weekly that would then be picked, packed and shipped. Waldenbooks opened it’s first stores in 1962 and became the first of the mall bookstores to have a store in every state. Dayton’s Department Stores’ opened it’s first B. Dalton Bookseller in Edina, MN in 1966. Even Lauriat’s, Boston’s oldest bookseller, first store opening in 1898 was getting in on the act.
In 1971, when Leonard Riggio bought the original Barnes and Noble store in New York, Border’s opened it’s first store in Ann Arbor, MI. Crown, Encore, and other chains followed over the next few years.
In the 1980’s the publishers saw an opportunity for trade paperbacks. Larger format paperback originals had become very popular in a number of non-fiction categories particularly humor, cooking and sports. Also, mass market paperbacks were becoming more expensive. Here was a way to reuse or repurpose the hard cover printing and increase profits by introducing a new format into the book’s life cycle. As superstores reached their dominance, Barnes & Nobles and Borders exercised greater control over the look and feel of trade titles. After all, these stores had vast shelves to fill and what they saw as a more sophisticated and monied clientele. To enhance the shopping experience, B&N introduced it’s first Starbucks in store cafe in Springfield, NJ in 1993.
Today, with Borders gone, B&N seemingly in decline, and Independents finding their footing after losing half their numbers since the early nineties, what is next for bookstore? B&N courageously took on Amazon with it’s development of the Nook, but even that product appears to be sunsetting.
Is this a long slow decline like the record store? The easy commoditization of music in the form of digital downloads, combined with a 99 cent price point per song and the ubiquitous iPod extended and enhanced the portability of music begun by Sony’s with it’s Walkman and later Discman. And, as the form factor went from LP to Cassette, and finally CD, there was less to look at and hold. The digital music world has yet to replace the album cover and liner notes that made browsing and purchasing music so much fun. Are books and bookstores any different?
Books come in many shapes and sizes, with or without illustrations. The information they hold can be presented in a variety of ways and, as we have seen, in a number of formats. The tactile pleasure of a book should not be underestimated. The single purpose book that cannot be interrupted by texts and emails makes for a personal intimate experience. Assuming ebooks have their place, it would seem that the ideal bookstore would be all about choice. It would be a place where you could go to preview and purchase a book in any format and for any device. Print on demand would be available for out of print titles. You could have coffee or a meal, hold a business meeting, or meet as a book group. You could shop for first editions or used books and have them delivered to your home. It’s a beautiful place, well designed and appointed with lot’s of light. It’s a community center, a hub, a friendly vibrant intellectual place that serves all ages. Perhaps it is a hybrid, a bookstore library that is part of a network of linked resources providing superior service from a knowledgeable staff, and books, in any form, at a reasonable price.
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