I live in a town which has very little in the way of independent bookstores. There’s one very tiny feminist bookshop, which is nifty, and a handful of comic shops, but there’s little else. If I want to shop somewhere that isn’t a chain, department store, or Internet store, I have to wait for one of the two massive Friends of the Library events (one in the fall; one in the spring), which is always a zoo and hardly conducive to calm browsing. Basically, I have few options.
None of this would be a problem if I still had access to a Borders or a good independent bookstore. Back in the old days of living in Santa Cruz (pre-2009), Borders was my go-to-chain. It had a decent enough selection and little of the stresses that other chains often created. Their membership club was free (and for a time offered “points” for purchases, which you could add up to discounts later on), too. It wasn’t the only bookstore I went to, of course. There was a great used bookstore in the part of town (called Logo’s) and a wonderful independent bookshop with superb selection. Basically, downtown Santa Cruz was the ultimate bookshopping spot for me.
Gainesville has none of that. The Barnes & Noble shop closed down. I don’t know if we ever had a Borders, but there certainly hasn’t been one here since at least 2009 (and now there never will be). The only good independent bookshop closed down years ago because the University of Florida bookstore did everything it could to cannibalize its sales (not just conjecture; it did — ok, it’s conjecture…). Gainesville has two Books-a-Millions, which are poor excuses for bookstores, generally speaking. When it had a B&N, things weren’t much better (except that I could talk to a real person if I had questions about my Nook/Nook HD+). What’s the problem with places like BaM, B&N, etc.?
In the current bookshopping climate, chains offer the least pleasurable experience. Since they’re desperately fighting off the online marketplace, many of these chains have put more effort into pushing things that aren’t books on customers. Books-a-Million, for example, puts far more effort into trying to sell people their $25/yr memberships than it does in curating a good selection of books. Their science fiction and fantasy section, for example, is lackluster on average (one of the stores in town might as well stop carrying sf/f, since their selection is just shy of pointless). When I do shop there, I’m always measuring the desire for a book against my desire not to have to tell that poor cashier that I don’t want to join the club or do X or whatever to get some added discount. I’m always trying to avoid the guilty shopping experience.
That’s a horrible thing to feel when I’m at the bookstore. I want to feel excited about that new book, not uneasy because I know I have deal with the hard sell. There’s a reason I do so much of my bookshopping online. I get all the selection I could possibly want and none of the uncomfortable feelings. Why leave the house for anything less?
All of this was highlighted further by today’s experience at Books-a-Million. When I went up to the counter, I noticed that this particular BaM sold comics at the register. I knew they sold graphic novels, but I had somehow forgotten or missed that they also sold comic books. Being a new comic book convert, I had to say something. And what did the cashier say? He said “hey, there’s actually a whole section of comics if you’d like me to show them to you.” I hesitated, because I knew the hard sell was coming. He was going to push that damned membership on me again: “And if you join our super duper club, you’ll save $0.37 on a comic book! Come on, you know you want to!” If I said know, he’d push again. And again. And then he’d give that look they all give because somehow that membership is tied to their job security… But that’s not what happened. He gave me an enthusiastic smile and showed me those comics. I ended up grabbing the first volume of Black Science, which he apparently loved enough to give me a high five. (This same fellow made several recommendations to another customer, who then bought those books.)
This experience is so uncommon at Books-a-Million that it stood out. Here was a guy actually showing customers things they might like. He was doing his job as a bookseller, not as some guy working for a chain trying to upsell their non-book-specific bobbles. This has never happened to me at a Books-a-Million. Or any chain for that matter. The chains are always about general sales, not recommendations. They’re about shoving non-book product on the consumer, not helping them find new things to read. They’re about everything other than selling books (except in the most basic sense of the phrase, since they are bookstores). So when a cashier at such a place goes off script, I can’t help but notice. Because this is the kind of behavior I expect at Powell’s or Santa Cruz Bookstore.
There’s a reason the chain bookstores are struggling. They don’t offer this kind of service as a default. They don’t give us a reason as consumers to continue to go through their doors, particularly if we’re regular book shoppers. Because for chains, it’s not about treating customers as individuals who want to read, but about treating customers as walking wallets you have to prod and tweak to open up. There’s a reason I always go to Powell’s when I visit home: I get the personal experience I want. And Powell’s is enormous. Thousands and thousands of customers shop there. And every time, I get that personal experience. Period. It doesn’t matter if I’m there to buy 50 books or one.
I don’t pretend for a second that “personal experience” isn’t self-serving. Stores that do this do it because it works. When your business environment is welcoming and helpful, customers are far more likely to return. What Amazon will never have over Powell’s is that environment. It can’t. It’s a massive monstrosity of a store with no face (and I’m told customer service is lackluster at best, not to mention that it is designed like a “troubleshooting / tech support” entity, not a bookseller). There’s nothing personal about it. It embodies the absence of the personal. That’s why Powell’s is unlikely to go anywhere, even as the rest of the chain stores struggle to compete against Amazon (and elsewhere). Maybe they’ll learn the lesson, but I doubt it.