Is Old-Fashioned the Way Forward, After All?

Confession time. A little known fact about me… Family: Psh, yeah right. *titter titter*. “Little known”? Really, Erin?… Ahem, here goes: I’m a bit of a worrier. That’s right. The proverbial worry wort est moi. It’s genetic; I get it fair and square. I can’t help it. Of course, that’s not true. If I did more yoga and deep breathing I’m sure I could help it and indeed I’ve been working on that lately in this unpleasant season of unemployment.

But I digress. Last night as I was going to bed I had a brainstorm. For weeks now I’ve been wasting precious time (and putting unseemly wrinkles on my tender, young visage) worrying about my local Indie bookstore. They’re old-fashioned, you see. They don’t have a website, don’t do social media.  E-books are the bain of their existence and, heavens, no, child they won’t be caught dead selling those things even if every customer comes into the store and asks them to (as some have).

They’re lovely people, my booksellers — I’ve been going to them since I was a tot — true booksellers in the sense that they don’t just know their stock, they’ve read everything that comes through their door… or just about. I admit, I like to try to trip them up. Sometimes I’ll come in with a particular book in mind, but more often I’ll just be browsing. I’ll pick up a new release and say, “Is this one any good?” and then either Margaret or Sarah will give me a summary, sometimes clipped, sometimes exuberant, which is how I know they’re not just parroting the review from Book Page. Though strategic booksellers (they’ll always have something positive to say about a book, or else why would it be in their store?), I know they’ve actually read the books because their responses to my inquiries are not uniformly laudatory. I can tell when they approve of a book, but perhaps didn’t find it to their taste. More impressively, they know when a book will not be to my taste.

Which leads me to my brainstorm of last night. That dialogue I just described? That informed and transparent customer service? That’s what makes old-fashioned brick-and-mortar businesses so special. One might say that’s what makes them old-fashioned. I’ve been for going on a month now trying to convince my booksellers that they’ve got to get a website up and running with online buying capabilities. They’ve got to start selling e-books. They’ve got to start Tweeting, blogging, Facebooking more regularly, and for heaven’s sake, responding to their emails. And then it hit me: If they did all that, would they still have time to read the books in their store? Would it distract them from being who they are — booksellers of the first order — which is the reason I go to them in the first place?

Now, I’m not recanting all I’ve said in previous blogs about the importance of embracing new technology. Booksellers really must change with the times if they want to stay afloat. And they’ve got to be smart about it, making sure that they do so while holding onto their core values. That’s a lot of work and a tall order for an already overworked and underpaid bunch of people. But I believe they can continue to offer good old-fashioned customer service while still modernizing in simple ways. Indeed, modernizing would bring that hallmark customer service to a new wave of customers.

But I guess my thought last night was this: If Barry Eisler was right and bookstores really are due to become novelty shops, the same as antique and vintage clothing stores, then is customer service and face-to-face conversation just part of that novelty? If it is, then I don’t think it’ll take us very long to figure out that a search engine can’t replace a conversation with a bookseller. Of course, maybe we’ll soon have an application that simulates real life conversation.

What do you think? As people become increasingly isolated and plugged-in, will they still want customer service? Face-to-face interaction?  Do you want that?

  1. I will ALWAYS want face-to-face time with REAL people, and I think it’s up to us who know that this is what HUMANizes humans to make our voices heard! Thanks for being one of those voices! Viva the independent booksellers and the people who frequent them.
    Maureen Ryan Griffin

  2. willem said:

    I’m afraid that ebooks and bookstores are like oil and water. The problem is not that it directly threatens bookstores, but that it destroys the print ecosystem on which physical bookstores depends.

    Some believe that they can coexist but it seems quite clear to me that as one rises the other must fall. The remorseless logic of this is laid bare at

    This piece should be required reading for those who believe in a future for bookstores. Of course we will miss the human element, just as we miss those fascinating discussions we had with the knowledgeable music lovers running record stores.
    Alas that has not prevented their mass closings over the last decade. With bookstores… just rinse and repeat.

  3. Bobbi said:

    I think you could solve their problem and yours. YOU should do all those things for THEM as an employee! You can do the FB, twitter, website and blog! Can’t hurt to ask!

  4. Claire said:

    Of course I want face to face interaction. This is a different bird than going to a clothing store where a woman follows you around and keeps asking if she can help you, as you try to loose her cutting through the dressing room. We are talking about people who love to read, love stories and KNOW what you like because they know every book you’ve bought with them before. This is authentic, this is the good stuff. You cannot beat taking a book to a register and having someone raise an eyebrow and simply allude, “I just don’t think you should get this one.” Nothing tells you they love books and love to share a good book with you, to you liking, like asking you to consider a different option that you’d truly enjoy more. Relationships do keep customers and they keep loyal friends.

    It’s been researched and considered now that generation Y is of a brand that is used to everything being personalized. They get on Facebook and the program has already detected everything they would enjoy and offers them personalized adds to keep them buying things according to their “likes”. Everything is personally, individually offered to get someone to buy something. We can’t get generation Y to join anything without having a relationship prior to that opportunity to convince them it will be worth their commitment. I do believe you have pulled the light bulb string, my friend. The stores that are REALLY going to last this out, last out all the trends, and last through all the mega stores and cheap online options, are the ones that know your name and know what you like because they like you. This is a relational world, it is the way it was designed. It is most blessed if we let it exist this way.

  5. Erin said:

    Maureen — I look forward to hearing more of your voice. Thanks for posting!

    Willem — Thank you for the links. I found the cynic in me agreeing with a lot of your and Tim’s points. I’m a student of history and I understand the basics of supply and demand economics. We are essentially in a new Industrial Revolution, and many people in the book industry will lose jobs to these new machines, just as farmers were replaced by tractors. Those are the facts, sad but true. Most people will choose convenience over principle at the end of the day, and the most convenient method of obtaining books will win out in the money game. I understand that.
    But it doesn’t make it right. And I don’t just mean “right” in a moral sense. I mean, it’s not the best thing for a community, for individuals. The second article you linked to says it well at one point. “Bookstores are inherently community centers.” Not only do they bring people together and facilitate the sharing of ideas, but they contribute to the economic stability of that community. When you spend money at a local independent store, that money stays in the community: about three-times as much as when you spend it at a chain and infinitely more than when you spend it at a web vendor.
    Then there’s the whole issue of the quality of the literature. It’s still too early to say how literary criticism will change as we move away from traditional publishing, and I’m not qualified to venture a guess. But as ePublishing becomes a more viable option for authors, there will have to be a way to separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were, at least for literary fiction. Judging from the titles that make it to the eBooks bestsellers lists (the ones that aren’t first published traditionally), it would appear that the cream does not rise to the surface in ePublishing. Not without editors, critics, reviewers and knowledgeable booksellers and readers to sort through it all. Not yet anyways. I’m sure that will change, too, but I just can’t see how $.99 eBooks will provide jobs for all those thinking individuals who are important for determining which literature survives and which gets left by the wayside. Plus, where is the financial incentive for authors? As Margaret Atwood says, who will buy the author her cheese sandwiches?
    Finally, as for eBooks being better for the environment, I wish that were the case. Here’s an excerpt from an article from Publisher’s Weekly.
    “Here’s what an e-reader is: a battery-operated slab, about a pound, one-half inch thick, perhaps with an aluminum border, rubberized back, plastic, metal, silicon, a bit of gold, plus rare metals such as columbite-tantalite (Google it) ripped from the earth, often in war-torn Africa.”
    Here’s the rest of that article.
    Your points are all very realistic and practical, and you may well be right about bookstores being endangered species. You are right. But I’ve got to keep defending them anyways, because I believe them to be absolutely essential in a healthy, functioning society.
    Thanks for posting!

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