(also posted on adaptivepath.com)
The demise of independent book stores gets a fair amount of coverage in the literate press. In the Bay Area, we’re witnessing the passing of Cody’s Books, a formerly venerable Berkeley institution whose fortunes collapsed over the last couple of years.
The death knell for independent book stores has been tolling for at least 15 years, beginning with the rise of Barnes and Noble, and then Amazon. Oh, and supposedly, people don’t read.
I find much of the discussion misleading. While the cheaper prices that Amazon and Barnes and Noble are able to provide are one reason for the demise of the independent bookseller, I would argue that the bigger reason is that independent bookstores misunderstood their potential role in the world of retail. They stuck with an outdated 20th (19th?) century notion of being a collection of shelves filled with books, and didn’t embrace the 21st century reality of providing a distinct experience that connects with their customers.
I find this frustrating because I love book stores, and I particularly love independent ones. But I find it shameful that the tenor of the discussion around these failing stores places blame on the customers who no longer shop there (or who never did, and not on the owners who aren’t working to figure out how to adapt to thrive. I can guarantee you that Cody’s never engaged in any type of research to understand what their desired audience wanted from the book store experience — I’m sure they believed they understood their customers, because they were their customers! (Of course, this is true only if their desired customers were aging Boomers… Cody’s never bridged to the younger generations that now make up the bulk of Berkeley.)
Also, Cody’s held on to outdated thinking that a store is a collection of items on shelves. That is simply no longer sufficient — you will never compete with the Web’s infinite shelf space, and the deeper discounts that such volume allows them to provide. Apart from the occasional book signing, Cody’s never took advantage of their physical location to provide a literary experience. Why not learn from the success of Borders or Barnes and Nobles? Cody’s never offered comfy chairs or coffee. It never tried to be a destination. It just did the same thing it always did, which proved quixotic when it was clear the world around them was changing.
As such, I find it hard to feel bad about the demise of Cody’s (or any other independent bookseller). And it depresses me to see them talked about as if they’re charities that warrant “saving.” There are many ways book sellers can evolve to create a desirable literary experience that keeps customers coming, attracts new customers, and moves product. I continue to think a huge untapped opportunity for independent booksellers is to connect customers with one another. As such, I’m curious to see what happens with Indiebound, the next generation of BookSense (the national marketing program on behalf of independent bookstores), to see if they’re able take advantage of “the social” to re-stoke people’s passion for their local independent bookstore.