Over the last several years, as bookstores have dwindled and Borders went belly up, a lot of attention has shifted toward Amazon (being the villain or scapegoat, depending on your perspective). But debating Amazon’s role in the changes in publishing does nothing to save bookstores. Like it or not, Amazon will continue to do what it’s doing, and because it’s primarily helping readers, little traction will ever be gained among book lovers to boycott Amazon or any similar pointless activities (unless Amazon does something truly wrong).
The truth is, bookstores have dwindled because they’re part of a defunct system that dates back nearly a hundred years, and became very comfortable in their role. In other words, as the publishing world started to change (evident at least 20 years ago), bookstores did little if anything to proactively adjust. They just kept doing the same old things, selling books the same old way. Worse yet, as book-selling consolidated among fewer chains, such as Barnes & Noble and Borders, the “associates” (or whatever title workers were bestowed) became less and less knowledgeable. The love of books common among independent bookstore employees was replaced by the attitude that “it’s a better job than other options” for getting through college or a mid-life crisis. Of course, I’m grossly generalizing, to the insult of honest, book-loving bookstore employees everywhere — however, they are a truly slim minority (and they, of all people, know it).
So, what can bookstores do?
My recommendation — and precisely what I’d do if I were to start or take over a bookstore today — is to specialize, specialize, specialize. Focus your bookstore on a particular genre and know that genre inside out. Humor books, self-help books, business books, mystery, sci-fi, romance, whatever. Pick a genre and go deep. Feature the popular titles, but carry many from unknown and self-published authors as well. Hire employees who absolutely LOVE your genre, so they know more about it than 90% of the customers coming through the door.
Wanna get crazy? Allow customers to order books from Amazon that you don’t carry. Do it right there in your store. Have computer stations set up so customers order through your Amazon Associates account, earning you a little cut from each sale. No, it’s not much, but it’s a slice of the pie you wouldn’t otherwise have — and it’s goodwill among your customers. Make this option abundantly clear in your store, so fewer rude lurkers are buying from Amazon on their smartphones in your store.
I have more thoughts on this I’ll add in the future, but for now, I’ve put the idea out there. Of course, I’m not saying there’s no such bookstore in the U.S. or world, but I’ve never heard of or seen one (not counting technical, scientific, or religious bookstores). So, at the very least, I can say the vast majority of bookstores try to carry most genres for most people. I think the time has come to head the opposite direction.