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To sell or not to sell: are physical bookstores still viable?

Today I had a very interesting experience inside a chain brick-and-mortar bookstore that could have made the case for why bookstores are still crucial and viable, but at the same time could have argued why bookstores are a dying breed that can easily be replaced by online stores of the Amazon variety.

If you’ve read one of my latest posts on independent bookstore “The Last Bookstore”…in-los-angeles/  then you know how much of a fan I am of the physical bookstore and books. So imagine my shock when I walked out of the store today and actually considered that there are certain cases where the brick-and-mortar store could- and should (!)- be obsolete.

I visited Barnes and Noble on a quest for children’s books for my niece and nephew, cousins who both just turned four. I knew where I was headed: The Little Golden board book turn-style, which was a mecca for yours truly when I was about their age (and beyond). “Scruffy the Tugboat”, “The Little Red Hen”, “Peter Rabbit”- these are books I treasured as a child and I wanted to share the love. For those unfamiliar, Little Golden was a book series that published books by various well-known authors for little kids featuring stories designed to teach lessons and values, as well as entertain. As I perused the selection, I couldn’t help but overhear a BnN employee discussing the Amelia Bedelia series “reboot” with a customer who was looking for a few books for his daughter.

When I heard the words “Amelia Bedelia”, one of my beloved childhood characters, my body and soul transported back to my 8 year old self, and I immediately made a beeline over to that section. I think the employee knew she probably had a longtime book junkie on her hands or she recognized that childish glint in my eye because she instantly asked if I had a question.

“I heard ‘Amelia Bedilia’ and had to run over!” I said.

She laughed, and what followed was one of the most delightful conversations I’ve had in a while. We talked about our love of Little Golden books and old stand-bys, such as the Nancy Drew series. I let out a long sigh of envy when she told me that her parents once bought a house filled with original Nancy Drews that the previous owner had forgotten about. We lamented over the fact that kids should be reading MORE and that all I want to do now as an aunt is buy books. I asked her about other books that might be good for four year olds, and she excitedly went through a whole slew of series’ kids are reading today (or starting to read). In short: she was informative, caring, patient, and extremely passionate about books. Just the exact type of person you would want to hire to work in a bookstore.

Well, then I got to the check-out and encountered the exact OPPOSITE of who should be working in a bookstore. This guy mumbled something resembling hello and didn’t make any eye contact. I asked if I could wait until the total before I added a few other books I had in my pile.

“I was told to ‘not go nuts’ by my husband”, I explained, chuckling.

“Which is easy for me to do!”, I added, referring to the “going nuts” part.

Guy didn’t even crack a smile. In fact, he actually interrupted me before I finished that last sentence and asked if I wanted to sign up for the credit card or newsletter for free coupons, and barely even listened to my decline before moved on to the next item on his internal checklist. He just rang me up, asked if I wanted a bag, and had already moved on to the next customer before I had even left the counter. In other words, I was a non-entity; the whole transaction literally existed solely for the exchange of money, not for conversation.

And it hit me as I turned to leave that I would have gotten the same level of service, really, if I had just purchased the books online.

Now the woman employee I joyfully engaged with, on the other hand, can not be replicated online. Her presence was valuable. If you are on Amazon, you can do a quick online chat or call up customer service with a specific question, but you would never get the same passionate person who can easily make an informed and in-depth suggestion. The woman employee alone would make me go back to that store, again and again. That fact, my friends, is priceless and crucial for the survival of any physical bookstore. People go to Amazon and other online retailers for convenience and ease, not for pleasure or for interaction.

If bookstores want to continue they need to hire more people like the woman who helped me and less of the man at the check-out counter. His presence and level of customer service- and by level, I mean the barest of bones and the least amount of effort- really does make the argument that brick-and-mortar stores are no longer viable. If the store was made up of no one else but that guy and his attitude, then the most human interaction you probably have is finding out where the travel section is, or where the Nancy Drews are located but not what age group they are appropriate for. And in that case, you might as well just go to Amazon. It takes that ONE special and excited person to go a step beyond to make the whole physical book selling experience a vital commodity and service.

Sure, I do understand that in the guy’s defense he could have been having a really bad day and that he is normally a cheerful soul. But here is where the bookstores have a real chance to shine and to put one over on the digital market! As I mentioned in my piece on The Last Bookstore, I encountered employees among the shelves who engaged with customers, as well as with the man who took my money. Chains and corporations have tried for years to bottle that feeling of customer satisfaction and have toiled over ways to replicate it, and what “IT” almost always comes down to is exceptional customer service: feeling heard, understood, and taken care of. You’ve got gold if a person does all three and then some.

After all, when I reflect on my childhood and my own tattered copies of the Amelia Bedelia series, I realize that I’m not just a person purchasing books, I’m actually a person purchasing the whole experience. I don’t just want a bookseller; what I ultimately want is a booklover.


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