The way that a bookstore presents itself plays a role in determining how well it does. While I do agree that there are important ways in which a bookstore must present itself to maintain a customer base (especially the smell of the store), I feel that there are also certain intangible qualities that can define whether a bookstore is successful or not. The most important of these, in my opinion, is the attitude and knowledgeability of the staff. These can have a greater impact on the way that people view the store than layout. In looking at this, I’m going to present two bookstores I enjoy spending my time and money at. I’m not going to name either, but I feel like they are representative of the two poles of bookstore display. I’m going to look at the organization of the stores and the merchandising.
The organization of a bookstore is vital to how the customer feels while in the store. Is it easy to navigate? Can the customer find the books that they are searching for? Does it feel like the walls and shelves are closing in, or is the store open and airy?
The first store is a used bookstore. As soon as you walk in books surround you. The books are piled waist high along most aisles, and the shelves stretch up nearly to the 15-foot ceiling. All shelves are crammed with books. The impression that one gets as he enters is of being surrounded, books threatening to collapse on you at a moment’s notice. The shelves appear to be homemade; in some cases the particleboard is evident.
The other bookstore sells new books, generally going beyond simple bestseller list and Oprah’s book club books. It has an eclectic collection that inhabits beautiful darkly stained hardwood shelves. I never go in with anything particular in mind, but I always find something of interest. The shelves are along the outer walls of the store with tables scattered throughout the open interior displaying certain choice books. Through creative use of shelving a separate children’s book area has been created.
I’ve spent a long time working various retail jobs and one of the most important skills I learned, and what in my opinion is a keen separator of a good store from a mediocre store, is the merchandising. By this I mean the presentation of the wares for sale. Proper merchandising will direct the customer towards the product that you want them to buy. In the case of bookstores this is done by displaying certain books on the shelves with their full cover facing forward as opposed to just the spine, or various other means, such as having tables with specific books on them. Proper merchandising draws the customer’s attention. It also serves to help maintain order in the store. A properly merchandised store is an orderly store by definition.
The used bookstore puts next to no effort into merchandising. As I mentioned before, the shelves are crammed full of books in rough alphabetic order by author and divided by genre. The floors are piled with books. It’s more a matter of cramming as much merchandise onto the sales floor as possible.
The other bookstore is beautifully merchandised. There is clearly a great deal of thought put into how the books are displayed, which ones get prominent facing on the shelves and which ones end up on the tables. The shelves are not overly crowded; allowing easy browsing of the books and the attention of the browser is drawn quickly to the books that the store wants you to see. There are clearly years of practice behind the manner in which the merchandise is displayed, and it helps convey a sense of order and comfort to the customer.
Now, in both of these stores whenever I have had reason to go in and ask for a book, the staff have always been able to help me. I know several times I have gone into the used bookstore, asked if the owner had a book and he immediately knew whether or not he had it. Usually he was able to take me directly to the shelf (or pile in front of the shelf) and pull it out. At the new bookstore, if ever I go in and ask for a book or ask for a recommendation, I have always been happy with the results. At both stores the staff are friendly but not pushy, they know the regulars and are happy to allow people to browse.
I’ve been in bookstores that are neat inside, have good selections, but the staff doesn’t know anything about the books they have. I go there if I can’t find a book anywhere else. I’ve also been to used bookstores that superficially resemble the used bookstore I talk about above. I’ve asked the person working if they have a book and have been ignored or grunted at (seriously…never went back to that store). What I’m trying to get at here is that bookstores come in a all shapes, sizes, and manners of operating. Sometimes what works amazingly for one store doesn’t work for another. Sometimes all it takes is knowing your merchandise and making the customer feel welcome. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and there’s more than one way to operate a bookstore.
[the image is Jurby’s bookshop borrowed from Paul’s Place: http://paulni.co.uk/labels/astronomy.html]