There must be a way to level the playing field a bit between brick-and-mortar shops and cheaper, more convenient online retailers, ideally sooner than later.
While browsing a table of new books at the Strand and spotting one that I wanted to buy, I experienced a common, modern-day itch: Do I purchase the book there and then from the Strand without pause, thus supporting bookstores, publishers, authors, and everything that I believe in? Or do I drive myself crazy by pulling out my phone and checking how much money I would save were I to buy the book online? The Strand was selling the book at a modest discount off of its suggested retail price, but I suspected that it would be less expensive on a certain ubiquitous Web site. Sure enough, the same book was listed there, brand new, for ten dollars less than the Strand’s price. If I ordered it from this Web site, it would be delivered to my door, the next day, for free.
The moral high ground is to buy the book from the Strand. The store afforded me the pleasure of browsing the shelves on a weeknight in New York. The store’s owners permitted me to pick up the book and read a few pages, for as long as I wished. They should have my money. But, for the sake of argument, let’s just say that I chose three additional books and that each of those books was also ten dollars less online. I could save forty bucks, which isn’t chump change. So the question then becomes, where do we draw the line? Are we expected to underwrite David’s battle with Goliath, no matter what the cost? I want to give my money to the Strand. I’m willing to pay more in exchange for the intangibles that I’m offered by a store’s physical existence. But I fear that this business model, whereby physical retailers are basically relying on a code of honor from their customers, is just not sustainable.
So why not monetize the intangibles? The Strand, and stores like it, could charge an admission fee. Something token, like a dollar. For a buck, you’re granted access to everything the store has to offer. You can browse to your heart’s delight. There’s no pressure to make a purchase. And, if you do buy something, perhaps the item costs close to what it would cost online, because all of those dollars would have allowed the store to lower its prices.
I’m not an economist, so maybe this idea is an unsophisticated one. More than five thousand people walk into the Strand every day, according to the owner, Nancy Bass Wyden. (“It’s department-store numbers,” she said.) Would every one of those people be willing to contribute a dollar to provide enough of a cushion to allow for quasi-online prices? And what about the little shop in the rural community, the one that might see twenty customers walk through its doors on an average day? Twenty dollars or so a day may not be enough to keep that store afloat. Is there perhaps some sort of revenue-sharing system that could be instituted, whereby all of those single dollars go into one big pot that each participating physical retailer gets an appropriate share of?
As it turns out, the idea is not entirely new. In 2013, the then U.K. HarperCollins C.E.O., Victoria Barnsley, floated the notion of a pay-to-browse model for bookstores in an interview with the BBC. A follow-up piece in the Washington Post found that a sampling of American booksellers were hostile to the idea, but a few daring retailers overseas have since begun experimenting with variations on this model. In Porto, Portugal, visitors to the world-famous Livraria Lello bookstore pony up five euros (about $5.50 USD) for an entry voucher, the cost of which is then subtracted from a purchase. And Bunkitsu, a bookstore in Tokyo, charges customers the equivalent of a whopping fourteen dollars for the experience of browsing its inventory and exhibition space. (Included with the admission fee is access to a reading area, where patrons are permitted to kick off their shoes, help themselves to unlimited quantities of coffee and green tea, and read anything they like.)
The booksellers I spoke to in New York were generally uninterested in this sort of radical move. Miles Bellamy, the majority owner of Spoonbill & Sugartown, in Williamsburg, dismissed the idea. “I would never charge people to walk into the store. No. It’s just not classy.” Spoonbill will mark its twentieth anniversary this fall, but Bellamy says that the celebration will be a muted one. The neighborhood’s real-estate explosion in the past ten or fifteen years has not resulted in what he expected to be an uptick in business, and times are challenging for the shop. The artists and intellectuals that Bellamy once relied upon, back when Williamsburg was hip, are now all but extinct, having been mostly replaced by tourists and Wall Street types. (A couple who was book-browsing overheard our conversation, and they offered themselves as proof of the former. “They’ll never get us out!” one of them exclaimed, before asking Bellamy to recommend the best book that he could think of in that moment. Bellamy immediately fetched a copy of Tom McCarthy’s “Remainder.” “It’s kinda weird, I dunno,” he told them. “Do you like weird books?”)
Bellamy was adamant that he does not want to rely on gimmicky revenue streams like coffee, tote bags, and notepads in order to stay afloat (“Anything but books,” he said, sardonically)—and certainly not an entrance fee. “I want to do it the traditional way,” he told me. “If the greatest city in the world can’t support me, I’m gonna close my doors and head up a country road,” he declared. Sarah McNally, the owner of the McNally Jackson chain, feels the same way. “Bookstores are havens,” she said. “They’re one of the few public spaces left. It’s my responsibility as a bookstore owner to figure out how to stay competitive. Charging admission?” she asked, incredulously. “What about children? What about teen-agers? Absolutely not,” she said. “I’d rather close.”
But Wyden is not opposed to exploring new models. Her store’s continued success may have as much to do with its iconic status and longevity (her grandfather, Benjamin Bass, opened its doors in 1927) as with her initiatives to drive sales through author readings and signings, both on-site and off. The Strand was hosting four different events on the day that I spoke to her, each in a different location, and all of which required attendees to either purchase the book being promoted or a fifteen-dollar Strand gift card for later use.
Wyden has toyed with the idea of a club membership (like Barnes & Noble’s loyalty program), and has even considered experimenting with a consignment model, whereby sellers set their own prices for the books that they bring in to sell and pay a nominal rental fee for shelf space. “I’ve never thought about charging to come into the store,” she told me, “but it’s a great future conversation to have. We would need to change the store into a club-like environment loaded with seating; free events, like a reading club; and refreshments” (which sounds like the Bunkitsu model in Japan). But she also agreed that it was important not to make entry prohibitive to anyone. Most of all, as a third-generation independent-business owner, she’s invested in the principle of keeping brick-and-mortar stores afloat. “I go to small bookstores all the time,” she told me, “and I always buy a book or two. The kindness, openness, and face-to-face sense of community that these places offer us is essential. We need that.”
I know exactly what she’s talking about. My father was a small-retail-business owner. He opened a wine-and-spirits shop in West Hartford, Connecticut, forty-five years ago and worked it around the clock with my mother until he handed it off to my brother when he retired. My grandfather helped out, my brother and I worked there when we were growing up, and our family’s dogs were the shop’s perennial mascots, beloved by our customers. I know what it means to remember the faces and names of regulars. I know the value of comfort and familiarity, of knowing that the place you go to buy your wares has a history and local roots. I know how important and reassuring the knowledge is that the people behind the counter can be trusted, that they are interested in your welfare as both a consumer and a human being.
I think about this when I shop, and it’s why I try to avoid big-box stores as much as possible. When I’m out in the world, having a stroll in a city or town, it’s difficult for me to pass a bookstore without at least having a browse. Never mind that I probably own more unread books than I could ever possibly read in a lifetime. Somehow, deep down, I think I believe that I will live long enough to read them and everything else, eventually. Books make me feel immortal, and I want more of them, always.
I know that people with a fondness for other physical things that are bought in physical stores have a similar feeling about those experiences. For me, it’s bookstores. I want them to always be there. I want to be able to get lost in them, to lose track of time in them, to encounter titles and authors and subjects in them that I hadn’t anticipated, and to leave them with an armload of titles that leave me brimming with anticipation. In this confounding era of online retail, I’m certainly willing to pay a premium for such pleasures, but an extra thirty or forty per cent seems to be too large an ask. There must be a way to level the playing field a bit, ideally sooner than later.
So, pay to walk in to the Strand, or McNally Jackson, or Spoonbill? I would, certainly, and I have a hunch that others would, too, especially if all bookstores (or even all physical stores) instituted the same policy. It may not serve to topple Goliath, but it may at least hold him at bay until we can figure out a better slingshot.