Book stores and libraries have long played a central role in fostering a deeper appreciation of knowledge, and in lifelong learning. Increasingly, these places are also filling another critical need in our communities, by providing a haven for those seeking a communal connection in an ever-more isolated world.
Book stores are confronting the dual challenge of staying both vital and profitable. The most successful brick and mortar bookstores have evolved into third places. Once just exclusively retail outlets, they now are quasi-library/community gathering spots with onsite coffee shops and free Wi-Fi access. While book stores have always attracted those who wish to browse and kill time, they now also draw others, laden with backpacks, to research, write, and study. Book store-based reading groups abound.
The bankruptcy and closure of more than 600 outlets of Borders Books nationwide is evidence of a shakeout in the retail book industry, amid the proliferation of electronic book portals such as Amazon, Apple and Google. Independent book stores especially have struggled to maintain their niche in the marketplace (although they may have more flexibility to quickly embrace third place-related amenities).
The lesson in this case is that capitalism can be harsh. For example, Amazon’s controversial price comparison tool allows shoppers to scan bar codes to check prices at rival brick and mortar and online stores. But capitalism also encourages differentiation. As every good business owner knows, becoming a commodity dealer and competing only on price usually is a recipe for failure.
Rather, libraries should be more like book stores, creating an inviting, leisurely environment. Bookstores should be more like libraries, providing community rooms and programs.
Both should think creatively about how to provide the things that online sellers cannot. That includes, of course, the pleasures of shelf browsing as opposed to web-based browsing. But beyond that, the most successful libraries and book stores will embrace the opportunities for relevance that their special third place status enables.
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