Do we still need bookstores?

My book signing at Barnes and NobleI’m writing this post from our local Barnes and Noble, which may be one of the 240-290 stores the company closes over the next decade. I would miss this particular B&N since I signed my novel Offline here. I would especially miss B&N if it went the same way as Borders and closes completely. But in an age of eBooks, big-box discount stores, and Amazon, do we still need bookstores?

I believe we do, but in a different form than they are now.

I don’t believe paper books will ever go away, but the economic and ecological benefits of eBooks make more sense. They are cheaper to produce, cheaper to sell, and cheaper to buy. They provide an easy point of entry for new and independent writers. Prices of dedicated eReaders are falling, but people may prefer reading on the high-resolution screens of the tablets and smartphones they carry around with them anyway. As eBooks and indie writers gain more acceptance, the demand for paper books will dwindle. Eventually, paper books will be limited to mass-market best sellers, children’s books, and staples like dictionaries and Bibles, since the audience for these books is big enough to fit the economy of print publishing.

But book lovers still want a place to gather, authors still need a place to promote their works, and people want a place to relax, get a cup of coffee, and log on to free WiFi. There is a market for bookstores to attract those type of people and get their money, but they have to change.

First, bookstores have to become smaller. A lot smaller. With the move to eBooks, they can. They don’t need to stock or shelve as many paper books. Since they don’t need to rent as much space, the break-even point becomes more manageable.

Second, bookstores need to become community hubs. Our society has become too transitory. We have become so busy that we don’t feel we can sit and linger anywhere. Even meals are things we have to rush through so we can go on to the next errand. We need a place to relax, hang out with friends, and meet new friends — that isn’t a noisy bar. A bookstore can be that place. Give it the right ambiance, have enjoyable musicians and interesting speakers, and make it a place where people want to go to and stay for a while. The longer people stay at a place, the more likely they are to spend money there.

Third, bookstores need to sell food and drink. Why? Because they make money. Not everyone who hangs around a bookstore will leave with a book, but they will get hungry or thirsty at some point. Barnes and Noble already has Starbucks at most locations, but I suggest that it gets more of a focus instead of something shoved upstairs or tucked into the side.

What would a bookstore of the future look like?

There would be still be paper books on sale, including a nook of children’s books. There would be a cafe with coffee, sandwiches, and sweets. The main feature would be a large open area with cafe tables, sofas, and chairs where people can dine, pull out their laptops or tablets and connect to the free WiFi. Of course, when users connect, they get a Web page where they can buy eBooks from the store, read about upcoming events, and even order from the cafe. Days would be dedicated to the kids with story time and crafts. In the afternoons, authors would give their readings and do book signings. Toastmasters and other clubs can use the space (in exchange for having people buy an item from the cafe). In the evenings, there would be musical acts, poetry slams, lectures, and standup comedy.

In some ways, the bookstore of the future will be much like the small, neighborhood bookstores of the past and the independent booksellers we still have today. Bookstores big and small will have to adapt to the growth of eBooks and changing tastes. Regardless of the changes in books and publishing, bookstores can fulfill a need all of us have — to find a place where we can relax, hang out with friends, and enjoy good books.

Update: Based on the feedback I got on The Ghosts of Reseda High beta, I’m rethinking the rate that eBooks will adopted. There will still be a demand for paper books for midlist and new authors. Also, eBooks will have to address problems with digital rights management, such as publishers, eBookstores, and eBook software and device manufacturers taking away books that readers have already bought.