Dear Theoretical Future Grandchildren,
A few weeks ago I wrote you a letter, bemoaning the fact that it was likely you would never set foot in a physical bookstore with physical books. Because from where I’m standing it sure looks like everything’s going electronic.
Back here in the past there’s a bookstore you’ll have never heard of called Border’s that’s just gone belly-up and a lot of people seem to think that this is a sign of things to come for every book store.
But I was thinking about it the other day, and it occurred to me that I might have gotten it wrong. You little dearies from the future might be reading my post to you from the past and thinking, “What a lark! Good old pop pop, and his ‘End of Physical Books’ nonsense.”
So I’m writing this to cover my bases. But also because, I really do see a possible future for physical books, if only some company is bold enough to seize it.
Let me explain by way of a seemingly unrelated tangent: I work for Walmart. I expect they’re still around in the future, but if not, they’re so big now that I’m sure you’ve at least heard of them.
And here’s the thing about Walmart: when they were spreading and growing a lot of people said that they would push a smaller locally owned stores out of existence. After all, none of those stores could compete with the mega low prices that Walmart had to offer. And indeed many local stores did go out of business after Walmart came to town.
But the other day I was standing inside a local hardware store called Hall’s Hardware just down the road from Walmart and they seem to be doing rather well for themselves. And as I looked around me I realized that the future of physical books might look a lot like Hall’s.
This is how Hall’s Hardware succeeds in a town that has not one, but two big box hardware stores.
1. They have stuff you can’t find anywhere else.
This is a store that has gas masks. This is a store that has eighteenth century style manacles. And on top of the weird stuff, they’ve also got hard-to-find hardware items, kitchen utensils, pet supplies…you name it they’ve got it. And every day when customers can’t find something at my store I send them down the road with the phrase, “You know they’ve probably got that at Hall’s.”
2. They understand that shopping with them is about an experience.
This is a store that sells gas masks. Yeah, I know I said that already, but…really. Gas. Masks. How cool is that? They’ve got shelves and shelves full of oddities you never knew you needed until you walked past them. There are lots of times when I’ll go in there just to look. And their people? Don’t get me started on their people. Helpful, knowledgeable, friendly… they know who I am when I walk in the door (though to be fair that’s probably because I’m there ever other day). Just being there is a joy.
So what does all of this have to do with books, my theoretical future grandchildren? Simply this: if physical bookstores are going to survive the digital tidal-wave that’s rushing toward them, they’re going to have to learn these lessons too.
They won’t be able to fight the low prices online so they’re going to have to stock books that you never would have found on your own, books that make you stop and do a double-take. They’re going to have to foster the midlist and leave the bestsellers to the online giants.
And they’re going to have to realize that shopping in a physical bookstore isn’t merely about buying books. It’s about an experience.
Will they do these things? Only you can know, my theoretical future grandchildren. As for myself, I don’t intend to worry about it too much. I’m just going to sit back and enjoy the ride.
With all my love, your theoretical future grandfather,
P.S. What did I say about calling me pop pop? For serious ya’ll.