Are Brick and Mortar Bookstores Worth the Higher Price?

Photo: Judy Berna

As a book loving (hoarding) person, I was very surprised by a revelation I had this weekend. As much as I love my local library and am truly grateful for the time I save when I order purchased books online, there is nothing like strolling through a large, well organized bookstore. Until I happened to stumble into a giant one this weekend, it had been almost two years since I’d walked through that breezeway stacked with discount books and opened the heavy doors that welcomed me into something close to what I hope heaven is like. I had totally forgotten what joy I received from being surrounded by that commercial wonderland.

The reason for my adventure was Wired related. Since my family has moved several times in the past year, until recently I had no permanent address. I’ve had to buy my monthly issue of Wired from the news stand, instead of waiting for it to show up in my mailbox. Usually I’ve found it at my local grocery store. This month it wasn’t there. After taking in a movie on Friday night, my young adult daughter and I decided to swing by the bookstore, “really quick,” to pick up the amazing issue featuring our companion site, GeekDad.com.

What I didn’t predict happening was becoming lost in the aisles, walking down long rows of these sacred things called books, feeling like a kid in a candy store as I brushed my hand along the colorful titles. Every round table display caught my eye. I must have picked up two dozen books, flipping through them for content and the author photo (something I check out first in every book, I’m not really sure why). I found more than a handful of titles I must now add to my library request list. My daughter and I read just about every book on display in the kids’ section, many of them old favorites from her childhood, and just as many wonderful new titles that begged to be opened.

I started realizing how peaceful I felt, just being in that store, surrounded by books I’ve loved in the past and hope to read in the future. I vowed to go there more often, just to drink in the ambiance and check out the newest plush toys in my favorite book character shapes (Franklin, I’ll always love you!).

Later that night I shared my experience with my fellow GeekMom writer friends. We had a nice discussion link going, about who still has large bookstores in their areas and who has to drive a hundred miles or more to find one. I’m a huge fan of small, local bookstores. I have many friends who are authors of creative, amazing books and a lot of their sales come from locally owned small bookstores. But I had forgotten, until last weekend, the value of a huge bookstore, and all the variety it can bring.

I am addicted to GoodReads but even after all of my searching there, in my bookstore wanderings I found a whole new list of potential books that had never been suggested on GoodReads. When I’m online with the discount booksellers I get to see the books they think I need to see, not necessarily a title that is outside of my general interest area but captivating nonetheless. I used to think I was “covered,” since I had my local library suggestions paired with GoodReads and the online site where I make most of my purchases. Our weekend bookstore trip proved me wrong.

That’s not to mention the tactile joy of flipping through a book, which has convinced me that print books will never really die. As much as I love the idea of taking hundreds of books with me on my next trip, all tucked into an e-reader, I love the satisfaction of turning pages and slipping a stray slip of paper into the spot I want to pick up next time. I love the way a paperback folds back in my hand as I get lost in a new character’s story.

My GeekMom friends and I discussed all these points and still we came down to one big problem. Big chain bookstores seem to have it all. Many of our writers love the kid’s activities offered there and almost all of us appreciate the big armchairs placed strategically around the store, inviting us to stay awhile and find a new treasure. But when it comes down to buying a new book, one that will sit on my personal bookshelf for years to come, or be wrapped in bright paper for a birthday child I adore, it always comes down to price. And so far there is no beating the online book sellers.

In the past ten years I’ve consistently made my book purchases online, with the only exceptions being the books of local writer friends who have book signing events. I stretch the budget to make those purchases, feeling like it’s one small way I can encourage smaller bookstores to continue to support local authors. But the reality of life is that I could only afford to buy half the books I want to, if I were to only buy from brick and mortar stores. As one GeekMom writer put it, “While I love being in a bookstore, I’m not willing to pay premium prices to make sure I keep getting to do it.”

I totally agree.

For now I feel fortunate that someone is buying these higher priced books, maybe not willing to wait a few days for shipping. Their willingness to open their wallets means I have a great place to explore with my daughter on a Friday night. But honestly I’m with my GeekMom friend. I just can’t justify paying the higher price to make sure my Friday nights are fun.

What’s your opinion about book stores, especially the large chains? Do you buy books, magazines, and merchandise there, or do you just cruise around for fun, then buy your stuff online? Has anyone who loves to read come to a place where they could be happy with only e-readers from now on, or are most of you happy for the option but not ready to give up your hard cover book collection?

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I’d love to know your thoughts on the matter.