For all the societal progress the future promises, there is one inevitability that saddens me the most: not being able to bring my children to a bookstore.
Indeed, the proliferation of e-readers and digital books has led to a steadying decline in retail book sales. Borders, the second largest bookstore chain in the U.S., teeters on the edge of bankruptcy; the company has already closed down bookstores and is delaying its payments to publishers in order to preserve liquidity.
A rosier future lies ahead for Barnes & Noble, as they announced its best sales in over a decade due mostly to online book sales for it’s e-reader, the Nook. Yet, it’s brick & mortar stores continue to be declining in revenue, and as a result, are closing at an alarming rate.
However, on a recent trip Barnes & Noble I came to the realization that these bookstores serve as more than just places to buy books, they are important threads in our cultural fabric. Whereas libraries are too staid and inhibiting to encourage social interaction, bookstores became a community hub. Anybody can discover something of interest to them at a bookstore, with magazines and music CDs to augment their attention and coffee tables to convene and discuss.
Unfortunately, bookstores are a dying breed that must give way to technology and convenience. Amazon has already announced the Kindle as it’s most popular retail item in history, and will continue to encourage this trend with its full financial weight.
The story didn’t (or doesn’t!) have to end this way. If Barnes & Noble, and hopefully Borders, can only muster enough encourage to innovate or change their bookstores to accommodate in digital readership, they stand a fighting chance against their demise.
One thing Amazon and Apple will never be able to compete with Barnes & Noble and Borders is their lack of brick & mortar stores. While the Nook was a noble attempt to compete on equal terms with Amazon, they are already fighting from behind. To catch-up you must run faster, not at the same pace.
Barnes & Noble should make all physical items in their store available to be purchased and transferred into a Nook, a Kindle, or an iPad. If these items aren’t available as digital copies, the Company should be pushing publishers towards that goal, much like Amazon is doing. Internet-capable kiosks should be next to every bookshelf to induce seamless, immediate and available purchasing as soon as a desired book is spotted, as well as provide reviews and other social tools for the discerning buyer. Music, as well as magazines, could easily fit into this model, especially with the iPad.
Of course, real books, as opposed to eBooks, will always be available to purchase, but now they’ll also serve as a discovery and confirmation tool.
Unfortunately, by closing down these bookstores, Barnes & Noble and Borders are destroying the one inherence advantage they have over their technologically experienced competitors.