Negative Bookstore Experiences: Why Bookstores Should Be Like Libraries

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A few weeks ago, I flew out to California to visit family and friends, pursue some possible job opportunities, and get some much needed decompression from the stress of PhD life.  During that time, I stopped at a Barnes & Noble to pick up a book recommended to me by a friend.1  Unlike previous stops at one of the big chain stores — whereat the cashier tries to sell me on their membership card, to which I always respond “no, thanks” — I had a far less pleasant experience.  It went something like this:

Cashier:  Are you a Barnes & Noble member?

Me:  No, but…

Cashier:  *judgmentally* …you know what the membership card gives you, right?

Me:  I do, but…

Cashier:  *dismissively* …Alright then.  $15.

What I had meant to say was this:

I understand what the card provides, but Barnes & Noble closed down the only store within a 30-40 minute drive of my house, so I don’t get the opportunity to browse there anymore.  And I don’t like browsing for books online, which means I don’t buy books all that often from any online bookstore.  Sorry.

But I didn’t get the opportunity to say that.  Instead, I was dismissed as just some guy wandering through.  No interest in what I had purchased.  No interest in pointing me to an interesting sale.  No interest in engaging me as a customer.  She didn’t seem to care.23

Obviously, rudeness isn’t uncommon.  In some ways, I’m not surprised by the attitude, especially given the state of the workforce these days.  After all, when you look at the general statistics, it’s nearly impossible to live a reasonably comfortable life getting paid what someone at a Barnes & Noble or Taco Bell gets paid.  In my state of residence, Florida, you need to make nearly $20 an hour on average to earn enough for a 2-bedroom apartment; in Gainesville in particular, that number is far lower, though still well above minimum wage.4

That said, I think part of the problem I continue to have with most of the chain bookstores (and other media stores) is the ever present reminder that my shopping experience will be uncomfortable or incomplete.  Whether it’s attitude from an employee, the always uncomfortable “do you want the membership card” conversation, the common “I can’t actually recommend you anything because I barely read” experience, or the heavy presence of popular titles over anything that might be a little more niche, my experiences in chain bookstores has mostly been such that my incentive to go is far less than my desire to buy books.5  And these experiences have actually driven me farther away from what few “new” bookstores we do have in Gainesville, FL.  Because I can easily turn my attention to online sales, whether at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Abebooks, or some combination.  Or, rather, I could turn my attention there.

I hate that I’m at that point where I’m more likely to go online to buy a book than I am to browse the shelves.  I don’t like buying books online; online purchases are a matter of convenience, not a desirable experience.  I actually enjoy wandering the stacks, picking through things just in case I stumble upon something I will fall in love with.  But more than once I’ve done just that only to put something back because I didn’t want to get the “membership card” speech or attitude for not being interested; in other words, I didn’t want what should be a pleasurable experience (buying a book) to turn sour in my magic book mouth.  Instead, I end up waiting for the Friends of the Library book sale or purchase stuff online when I know exactly what I want.  In the case of the former, nobody gets royalties from my purchases; in the latter case, I end up buying fewer books.6

What I want is for bookstores to become more like libraries.  I want to walk in, see the book people at the front, say hello, disappear into the stacks, buy my books, and walk out a happy camper.  And if I need help, I want to know that the person I’m asking actually knows something about books.7  I want to see solid recommendations in the stacks or on kiosks.  I want to feel like I’m in a place dedicated to books not because the stacks are full of them but because the culture in which the stacks exist practically worships the book.  That’s my dream.8

Maybe that’s your dream, too.

  1. a longer story that involves me actually writing fiction for once…
  2. Now, I’m not suggesting I should be able to give a speech; in fact, there’s no reason anyone should have to listen to my reasoning.  But that dash of sentences describes pretty clearly why I don’t often buy into the “for purchase” memberships at bookstores:  when you live 2 hours from any other major city and the only chain bookstore near you is a Books-a-Million you rarely go to and one Barnes & Noble some 30-40 minutes away, there isn’t much incentive to buy a membership card, especially if what you want from one of those cards is an incentive to browse in a bookstore.
  3. Thankfully, something called 2nd and Charles came to town, taking the space of one of the now disappeared Books-a-Million spots.  And 2nd and Charles, it turns out, is just my kind of corporate bookstore.  It has books.  It has comics.  It has music.  And it has tons of geeky merchandise (t-shirts, candy, notebooks, DVDs, etc.).  And it sells used and “rare” books!
  4. You’d need to make at least $11/hr according to MIT’s Living Wage calculator.  That number seems low to me, to be honest.  The assumption of the calculator seems to be that your income and expenses stay the same throughout the year, which isn’t true.  Most apartment complexes in Gainesville have increased rent every August or every other August since I moved here, and unpredictable expenses such as health insurance costs and medical needs could vary wildly from year to year such that your “living wage” could quickly become a “debt wage,” wherein what you owe combined with your expenses exceeds what you actually make.  A more conservative living wage would probably be closer to $15/hr, which you might get as a manager at a bookstore chain, but certainly not at any entry-level, “no skills” position.  Gainesville is a college town, so there’s not much incentive to pay a largely transient population a good wage, especially since a lot of them probably only work part time anyway.  The point I’m trying to make, I guess, is that I understand why these jobs are more often sources of stress for workers, and I understand it even better having actually worked in the fast food industry for several years.  Even as a manager, I didn’t make anything approaching a living wage (though this was in California, where $15 is maybe “break even” wage…in Sacramento).
  5. Exceptions exist, of course.  I’m not suggesting that every Barnes & Noble or Books-a-Million is terrible.
  6. Let’s be fair here:  if you’ve seen my apartment and my book buying habits at conventions, you know I already have enough books that you could drown an elephant in them.  What do I need more books for?  That’s obviously a really stupid question.  Also:  you shouldn’t harm elephants.
  7. For this reason, Powell’s remains the best bookstore I have ever been to.
  8. I realize I’ve probably complained about bookstores before (here, on Twitter, etc.).  Gainesville does have a few independent bookstores; however, they are sell used books, which is great for when I want to find something older and full of delicious yellowing pages and old word things; if you want browse new books, however, your only option is Books-a-Million.  2nd and Charles sells some new things, but it is mostly a used book and media store.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida studying science fiction, postcolonialism, posthumanism, and fantasy.

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