Is there a future for the bookstore in a digital age?
Despite the death of independent bookstores, despite the failure of major booksellers like Borders and Barnes & Noble, I think the answer is yes. Bookstores may well survive, if we’re open to the possibility that they may not, strictly speaking, be stores or physically house books. It might be better to say that the function of the bookstore will persist, albeit in a new material form.
Bookstores had an important mission: They physically distributed books to readers. They curated the books that they stocked. They guided individual readers to new books. They were (and still are) community centers, hosting readings, effectively serving as reading rooms, at their best creating not only readers but also reading publics. In what follows, I will assume the continued value of print books (see my previous essay, in the chapter “How will people read in the future?”).
Beyond existing modes of distribution — indies, big booksellers, and mega-retailers like Costco — how will we find new p-books in the future? How should we? Here are a few suggestions.
AMAZON STORE FOR BOOKS. Just as Apple has an Apple Store where it displays its sleek wares, Amazon might consider creating a bricks-and-mortar establishment meant to showcase its papery products. It’s possible, just possible, that customers will come into such stores, browse through physical books, and then decide to, you know, buy them. It’s a crazy idea, but if any innovative forward-looking technology company can make it work, Amazon can.
BOOK POP-UP. As physical bookstores increasingly go out of business, we might imagine a version of pop-up retail for the book sector. Such pop-up stores would by necessity be small, but they could colonize existing retail spaces, either legally or (what would be neater) extra-legally. With the aid of social media we might organize flash bookstores, which feature curated collections of the very coolest books, past and present, all handpicked by what we might call Book DJs (let’s all agree not to call them Book Jockeys, for obvious reasons), whose reputations will depend on their meticulous taste. No self-respecting hipster should buy his or her book from any other sort of store.
POD MACHINE. Some independent booksellers, like McNally Jackson in New York, have brought Espresso Book Machines into their store, allowing the printing of public domain books on demand. Such machines could populate many different retail locations, or even in time be part of every home. There’s also no technical reason that every book, both public domain and private, shouldn’t be available via POD Machine. Until technologies like 3D printing make it possible to print a high-quality book on demand in the home, let’s install a fast POD machine in every café in the land (Starbucks: I’m looking at you), set them up among vending machines wherever fine sugar drinks and fatty snacks are sold, and incorporate them into every airplane, where airline carriers can take their predatory cut from text-hungry frequent fliers. The whole human library should be available on demand, as a beautiful physical print-off, at any time.
PUBLIC LIBRARY. A radically socialist scheme, the public library is a place where stuffy government bureaucrats purchase books using tax dollars, store these books and then make them available to the general public. In the future, public libraries may become a key resource for preserving literary culture, if rapacious capitalists don’t kill them off first.
These are all ideas that could be pursued now, with a little bit of will, either on the part of private or public organizations. The future of the book is in our hands. We should make sure that readers can find the books they want, and that our institutions of book discovery work in their (that is, our) interests.