What Do They Want from Us? On the Return of Big Bookstore Chains

August 23, 2018 | 4 min read

Bookstores have become cultural Rorschach tests. After the past decade or so, you’ve either been traumatized by watching your favorite store go dark, or you’re fine with the coffee and craft cocktails now served alongside exquisitely curated books.

This fall begins a new era, or maybe a retro one, marked by the reemergence of national bookstore chains and two prototype stores opening next month. In New York, Shakespeare & Co. is growing to three locations, laying the groundwork for its national expansion, while Indigo, Canada’s largest bookstore chain, is opening its first U.S. store in New Jersey, staking its claim before growing west. Both believe there’s big potential in general bookstore chains despite wildly different ideas about how we buy books.

Shakespeare & Co. looks awfully familiar, with table displays, category shelving and café service, while Indigo is aiming for a “cultural department store,” built on cross-selling gifts and books with the soft-pedal feel of an Anthropologie space.

One is recognizable, and the other takes a leap, but both face down familiar looming threats: the “omnichannel” strategy driving Amazon and Barnes & Noble, which blends online and offline services and discounts. To back up their faith in chain bookstore selling, both giants have new stores in the works: Amazon Books is opening three new ones this fall, and B&N is transitioning to more nimble real estate.

It’s another stab at disruption, framed in brick and mortar, and for the most part, it’s the kind of threat your local indie knows well. Their best defense: localization. And you see it everywhere: As natives to your neighborhood, local indie booksellers know best what you want. In Ann Arbor, Literati is strident in its coffee- and community-based model, in line with its proximity to a progressive college campus; in Miami, Books & Books claims solidarity with the slow food movement; and in downtown Los Angeles, The Last Bookstore shares space with a local visual art collective. All of them might flop if they ever swapped places, and that’s probably how they’ve earned our trust.  

In San Francisco, The Booksmith opened a satellite event space two years ago and then kept going, acquiring an adjacent bar earlier this year, claiming “reading at a bar with a delicious cocktail is one of life’s greatest pleasures.” The expansions fit with the Haight-Ashbury locale, and a pop-up breakfast service offers morning-after relief.

But to meet expectations widened by the internet—and delivered on by Amazon—general service bookstores like the ones noted above also have to go wide. It’s a broad industry that’s only getting broader, and “local” tastes span as wide as the web. To cite two extremes: Lenny, Lena Dunham’s imprint, is still going strong, while Politico unearthed efforts to publish more titles for Trump voters. Is a non-niche, non-specializing, general-service bookstore even feasible anymore? 

And if the online giants can fine-tune their algorithms with the same precision that they pull off online, can’t we assume they’ll stock their new stores as expertly as the established bookseller down the street? How does that mess with our loyalties and habits, especially with cheaper books and more add-on service than your old favorite store provides? And for the two new aspirants, what’s the smarter path, Indigo’s seductive books-plus-stuff mix or the dependable, familiar shelves of Shakespeare & Co.?

In London, Foyle’s is the city’s mothership of bookstores, and the recent remodel of its Charing Cross store is a wonder to behold, brightly lit and smartly merchandised without being overly precious. Rising up four floors, it doesn’t feel like a warehouse or a coffee bar that sells books—through deceptively simple display principles, it’s seductive without belaboring the sentiment, breathtaking in its breadth and depth without being imposing, pedantic or self-aggrandizing. And somehow, along with four miles of shelves, it still houses an auditorium, a gallery space, and the requisite café. It’s staggering to imagine an algorithmic alternative, but then again, we haven’t seen how the omnichannel will mature and evolve.

A few indie publishers offer their own take on retail, as if they didn’t already have enough on their plates. In Minneapolis, the Minnesotan calmness of Milkweed Editions’ store is nestled in a community literary space, and in Los Angeles, Red Hen Books offers up spare working space for event rentals—two indie publishers investing in street-level experiences, both focused on building communities of loyalists. On a bigger scale, Taschen keeps 14 branded stores around the world, and Chronicle Books maintains two in San Francisco, showcases for their books’ visual appeal. In Brooklyn, Powerhouse recently expanded to powerHouse on 8th, building on its landmark event space and its celebrity-packed imprint.

Back in New Jersey, Indigo’s concept store will bank on the IRL experience, “creating a wayfinding strategy based on a sense of discovery rather than a distinct pattern of aisles. Just like reading a good book, the sense of discovery moves customers forward, taking them on a journey within the store.”

Indigo also launched Reco this summer, an app that shows book recommendations from your Facebook network. Combined with its soft-sell store design, it adds up to another omnichannel package, just tied with a spiffy bow.

Shakespeare & Co. is packing a few tech tricks, too. Each store will feature print-on-demand services, which could deliver whatever locals want right on the spot, freeing up the retail floor for more curated discoveries. As CEO Dane Neller told Publishers Weekly earlier this year, “Each new bookstore should be rooted in the local community and offer a cultural sanctuary …” If most of the books are housed in a machine, a bookstore’s physical space is wide open to possibilities.

So what do we want from our bookstores? Should we expect them to surprise us and deliver discoveries? Or do we need them to serve up exactly what we need, the book we just learned about on our phone? Are they supposed to be sanctuaries for cultural explorations? What about the thousands sold from palettes on the floors of Costco?

On the brink of this new era, the questions keep coming: What if some of these ideas are just good economics and, as a byproduct of their cyber efficiency, put books and reading back into more lives? What if they bring books back to underserved markets?

For book lovers, a new chapter is just starting to unfold.

Image: Flickr/Joshua Kirby

is a writer and publisher based in San Francisco. He's the founder and senior editor of Outpost19 Books. His writing has appeared in OZY, The San Francisco Chronicle, 3:AM and elsewhere. His debut novel about an editor's hardscrabble life is forthcoming from Dzanc.

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