Bookstores and serendipity

April 15, 2011 | 2 comments

Here’s one of my favorite places on Earth:


It’s called the Norrington Room. It sits in the basement of Blackwell’s, the oldest bookshop in Oxford (where I grew up), and when it was opened in 1966 it was the largest room full of books for sale in the world.

I love bookshops, but I rarely spend money in them any more.

Over at the Scottish Book Trust blog, Heather Collins has written a plea for the survival of high street bookshops, arguing that we should pay the bookshop price premium for similar reasons to paying extra for organic food.┬áThere’s no denying that they’re a dying breed, and while I certainly agree that I don’t want to see the demise of the bookstore, I also don’t think that artificially supporting them because they inherently deserve to survive is going to work.

So what is it about bookstores that’s so wonderful, compared to (and let’s face it, this is what the choice boils down to) Amazon?

Whenever I’m in Berkeley, I take time out for a visit to Moe’s Books on Telegraph Ave. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but its textured history and almost anarchic layout over five floors makes a visit feel like diving for treasure. Moe’s is opinionated; the staff clearly have an opinion about what you should be buying, and their passion comes through in the way they store and display their stock. They know you could head over to Borders, or do a book search on Amazon, so what Moe’s deals in is serendipity, distilled and condensed and plastered all over their shelves. More so even than the Norrington Room, this is a place you walk into when you don’t know what you want to buy. (A lot of people like City Lights, across the bay in San Francisco, but for me Moe’s is where it’s at.)

Amazon also wants to introduce serendipitous discovery, but it does so naively, using a process I wrote about years ago. They simply look at their aggregate data and tell you what other people bought, based on the product you’re currently looking at, the products you’ve looked at previously, and overall. Some of the recommendations are decent, but it’s so far proven itself to be a particularly bad system for uncovering titles that aren’t necessarily related to recent searches, but you find interesting anyway. They try and mitigate this with curated lists of products, but it’s hard to find one from someone whose opinions you’re interested in, and they’re too easy to game by marketers.

I think this kind of cultivated serendipity has the potential to be the savior of bookstores. Conversely, trying to directly compete with Amazon will be their demise. There’s no way they can compete with the online bookstore’s distribution, reach or economies of scale, but there’s also no way a software platform – even one as sophisticated as Amazon’s – can compete with the humanity of a few opinionated people who know a lot about books.

So bookstores should forget the identikit chain model. Hire the smartest people they can find – as Blackwell’s does – and get them to cultivate collections of interesting, hard-to-find books in such a way that unsuspecting customers can fall down into rabbit holes of hitherto undiscovered ideas. Serve great coffee; encourage visitors to browse and read. Have themed evenings, run book clubs, invite authors for signings. But embrace the fact that some people will be reading ebooks, and others want to buy bestsellers online. Run kiosks, and find ways to sell ebook versions of those hard-to-find books they’ve lovingly placed on the endcap. Make high street stores a place for discovery and learning, and even fill some of the gaps left by libraries (another dying breed). Turn them into social hubs with events and music.

An organic, human community? Now that’s worth paying extra for. It’s no wonder that so many identikit chain bookstores are dying at the hands of Amazon: they don’t dare to offer anything different.

Photo of the Norrington Room by Juan J Martinez, released under a Creative Commons license.