Over the years, there has been a myriad of industries that have gone out of business due to the rapid change in social preferences. Video rental stores are a great example of a business that lost popularity to competitors due to the changing of the times. As streaming became more popular, leaving the house to pick up a movie to rent became a thing of the past.
With video rentals (and overall purchasing of movies and DVDs) declining, many thought physical books and bookstores would follow the same path. When eReaders and pdfs of popular novels became widespread, some people were afraid bookstores would go out of business completely. Not only did they have to compete with larger commercial retailers, but they also now had to compete with devices that could hold hundreds of novels that were purchased in your own home. Many independent bookstores and bookshops did struggle, but the tide has seemingly turned in favor of these small, locally owned shops.
To understand how the rhetoric has changed surrounding independent bookshops, I asked 50 avid readers what they thought made a good bookshop and what their favorite characteristics were of the bookshops they frequented. What did bookshops have that made them more favorable than buying a book from the convenience of your home? How can bookshops today continue to adjust to be more favorable to readers? Well, the people I questioned came up with quite a few different answers.
One answer I’m omitting here is the idea of people liking physical books more than electronic ones. While this is a factor, many of the avid readers I spoke with have both physical books as well as eReaders. It isn’t exactly an either/or situation, and I wanted to know what people liked about the stores themselves aside from the draw of buying a physical book. Here are the most popular answers:
Curation and Presentation
Many of the answers I received had to do with the physical aspect of shopping and looking for a book. When people can buy almost everything online with the click of a button, going to a store to shop feels like more of an experience. A bookshop that really focuses on their presentation, having unique qualities to the curation of their shelves or the overall aesthetic of the area, leads to a more memorable and overall pleasant experience for the customers.
Stores that have an interesting premise, such as a bookshop that doubles as an indoor garden/plant store, appear to have more of a draw. Although, many cited the curation of the books as more appealing. Having a layout that flows and makes books easy to find has a big impact on customers, leaving them to have a more pleasant experience than not being able to locate a book due to confusing design.
The atmosphere of a store is highly related to curation and presentation, but many people named both curation and atmosphere as separate attractions of a bookstore. The main reason for this is because a store can have excellent curation, exciting titles, and great presentation yet still have a stale atmosphere. Friendly staff is a big help here as they can contribute to a more open and livelier atmosphere. Also, personal touches are really helpful.
Choosing background music, seating, lighting, and decoration with purpose and intention in mind can help the overall ambience of the store. These design and atmospheric qualities can also give readers a subtle (or not so subtle, depending on the goal) first impression of the store. People have different tastes, and some may not “vibe” with the atmosphere a bookshop chooses, but it is likely that many others will appreciate it.
One of the key aspects people appreciate about independent bookstores over buying eBooks or visiting commercial retailers is a knowledgeable and friendly staff. Most of the people I spoke to mentioned that having a staff that can recommend similar books to ones they are currently reading with great accuracy was extremely helpful and a large part of why they went to specific bookstores over others. And, there are many other ways to be knowledgeable in regard to helping a customer.
When someone is looking for a specific book, it’s important that the staff be familiar enough with the book (or with their store!) to help them find the book quickly. If they don’t have this particular book, it is even more helpful for the staff to be able to recommend a similar title the store does have or to offer another nearby bookshop that might have it. These are qualities that people deeply appreciated about the bookshops they call their favorites.
Unique Titles and Recommendations
Along with a staff that is knowledgeable about literature in general, having a staff that can recommend unique titles was one of the top answers for why people prefer an independent bookstore rather than a commercial retailer. People who love high fantasy don’t want to be recommended Game of Thrones as there’s a good chance they’ve already read it. Those who want a great indie recommendation are likely looking for something that isn’t on a current top-10 list as they could find that Google.
Where a bookshop really shines is being able to give a more personalized recommendation that also creates an interesting discussion around why the recommender is suggesting this book. People also appreciated when bookshops had a varied selection of new releases as well as more unique or unheard-of titles. In today’s age of widespread social media, it can be hard to keep people guessing, but having a supply of both familiar and unfamiliar titles seems to be a great way to have the best of both worlds at your store.
Community Events and Recreational Activities
Lastly, one thing people appreciate now more than ever is a sense of community. After being cooped up during COVID (and having many of their favorite events or activities cancelled), people are looking for any chance to get out and connect with others. Those who love reading are jumping at the chance to join a local book club, go to a book signing, or sit down and listen to a reading from their favorite author. This sense of community, as well as an excuse to get out of the house, is a large draw over other stores that aren’t as invested in creating unique and specific activities for customers to become involved in. Those who were parents also mentioned that if a bookstore made an effort to have child-friendly activities, they were more likely to frequent that shop.
A lot of the qualities that the people I interviewed responded with go hand in hand with one another. For example, frequent community events and recreational activities help contribute to a lively atmosphere. Purposeful curation and presentation show that the owners and staff are both knowledgeable and passionate about their craft. Being able to offer unique recommendations or show readers books they may have never heard of before is an example of both knowledgeable staff and unique curation.
If you’re looking for ideas to increase engagement with your bookstore, employing some of these concepts might be a step in the right direction. These are also all excellent things to consider before starting a bookshop or that may help reinforce ideas you’ve already had about creating a more specific atmosphere or identity for your bookshop. Each of these reasons is a large part of why independent bookstores have survived when others didn’t.