Will The Bookstore Experience Live On?

Shelves

I’m hoping the day never arrives when I don’t have access to a brick-and-mortar bookstore where I live. A few months ago my wife handed me the phone — on the other line was my father-in-law who lives in a different town. His first words were “Jim, I have some bad news. The bookstore closed.” What he was talking about was the last remaining bookstore in his little city, a place that I always tried to pay a visit when we were there. Shut down. Gone. Not coming back.

We have a lot of bookstores in Atlanta — big chains and small indies. I love them all. And while I do buy books online, both print and ebooks, I manage to sneak into my nearest B&N on New-Book-Tuesday every week, on the prowl either for something I know has been released or looking for something new and interesting. I frequent the science fiction section as well as the science/technology section. I also tend to loop through the YA section, often getting side-tracked by a book cover spotted on the nearby DIY shelves. Finally, I wrap up my visit with a walk by the magazine stands. My wife has never failed to notice a consistent expense every Tuesday when she logs in for some online banking. Books are my cigarettes, I guess. And I’m making no apologies.

But with every visit, I look around at the 100% empty music section (that makes up at least 1/10 of the floor space of my B&N). I notice the large number of folks with books and magazines stacked up on their tables in the coffee shop (for reading and most likely not purchasing). I take note of the substantial amount of over-priced toys (LEGO, science experiments, games) that always seem to be in the same place, week to week. And I always laugh at the same two $400 remote control drone kits that have sat up near the register now for I believe well over two years.  My bookstore seems to be fighting a losing battle. It’s trying to be Walmart when it should be selling two things — books and magazines (okay, and maybe newspapers and journals, but you get the point). I think of all that inventory sitting on shelves, not moving, and I worry.

I worry about losing that bookstore experience. Walking down the aisles. Looking at the covers and spines and shaking my head that I’ll never have enough time to read everything I want to read. Downstairs I circle the New Arrivals section full of new hardback books, looking for a new author or a sequel I didn’t know was due out. Then it’s on to the New Paperbacks rack where every paperback novel has its cover exposed, enticing visitors to make an impulsive buy… and usually succeeding in my case.

If bookstores go away, so does the browsing experience. Let’s face it — browsing for books in a bookstore is 100% different than looking for books online. I shop at Amazon.com and B&N.com, but when I shop there I typically already know what I want. I use the Search bar and enter an author’s name, a subject matter, or a title. I do like Amazon’s “More Titles to Consider” feature because it takes my buying and browsing habits and makes suggestions… but it’s just not the same as walking and looking and stopping when you see an interesting cover image or title name. It’s all too easy to pull a book off the shelf, read the back cover or the inside description and decide if I’m interested… but online book browsing is too cold. It lacks something.

What online bookstores need to do is offer a way to simulate the brick-and-mortar bookstore experience. While book thumbnails and prices are fine when I’m ready to buy, what I’d really like to do is this:

1. Visit Amazon.com (or B&N.com).
2. Click on a big “Visit Amazon Virtual Bookstore” button.
3. View the top-down map of the Amazon Bookstore, complete with New Arrivals table, magazine racks, and all the other sections that are familiar to bookstore visitors.
4. Tap a section (let’s go with Science Fiction).
5. On screen, I see a long set of bookshelves that extend into the distance (but not forever).
6. On-screen buttons (or maybe just gestures on a tablet) allow me to “walk” forward or backward, and as I “walk” I see the spines of most books mixed in with the covers of other books, just as you’d see on a set of real shelves.
7. Moving the mouse pointer over a book (spine or cover) causes that book to enlarge on screen. I can rotate it around, looking at the cover and reading any back cover copy.
8. A double-tap opens the book to let me scan the first 10-50 pages/1-3 chapters.
9. A single-tap puts it back on the shelf.
10. Swiping the book to the far right (where there’s an icon of a cash register) lets me check out. Or in Amazon.com’s case, maybe swipe it up to the top to the big “1-Click” button for immediate purchase.

The whole experience could be recreated — browsing magazine racks should be visual, with everything sitting in its place and ready to be “picked up” and examined. A virtual New Arrivals section would recreate that useful table that’s always front and center when you enter the B&N, giving you access to all the new releases for that week or month.

Maybe it would work… maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe there’s a better way. But as it stands right now… browsing for new books on Amazon.com or B&N.com isn’t fun… it doesn’t offer that feeling of stumbling upon something new and interesting and completely unexpected. It’s definitely not fast — in the time I click on a book icon, scroll down to read the description, and then click the Back button to pick up where I left off, I could have browsed 5-10 titles using a virtual shelf tool. I want the online book browsing experience to mimic the in-person experience as much as possible. Leave the old system in place if you like, but let me break out and experience a virtual bookstore.

I don’t know what’s going to happen in the world of bookstores. I think we’ll always have them, but it may reach a point where print books are more of a novelty like vinyl records. Digital is easy, it’s cheap, and book publishers seems to want to continue down that road for any number of reasons. If I’m going to eventually be forced to give up my printed books in lieu of digital, at least make it easier for me to find what I want. The old system worked — browsing by walking. If Amazon.com and B&N.com and other online book sellers can find a way to recreate that bookstore browsing experience with a web browser, I have a strong feeling they’ll find digital purchases increasing as book lovers will still be able to experience that moment of discovery that only comes from walking down the aisles, head tilted, and examining all that unread potential.

James Floyd Kelly is a full-time writer. His latest three books are Digital Engineering with Minecraft, Tinkercad for Beginners and The Ultimate iPad. Learn more by visiting his website http://jamesfloydkelly.com