I don’t understand much about the book business. But I do know what makes a person want to go and be somewhere. I read a good blog post at The Devil’s Accountant about the troubles small bookstores have with the existing book business and the emerging business of ebook publishing. Small bookstores have to purchase books at wholesale for too much money and can’t make enough profit when they sell at retail. That’s true. But most movie theaters can’t make much money selling tickets either. They sell candy and sodas at big markups to make good money. In fact, there’s no such thing as the ‘movie business.’ There’s only a candy selling business that uses movies to bring you up to the candy counter.
An important point I’d also like to make about independent and small bookstores is that most of them really suck. Seriously. Most small bookstores are just a modest room full of books on poorly built shelves. Dead boring. Nothing puts me to sleep faster than a crappy independent bookstore. Good riddance to them. Most independent bookstores can’t hold a candle to any Barnes & Noble or a Borders. Don’t open a bookstore if all you want to do is sell books. You’re an idiot if you do. And I won’t give you my money. I’ll give it to Amazon. They are not boring. They are smart and interesting. I enjoy watching them slaughter dull little bookshop owners every single day. It’s a fascinating and wonderful bloodbath. These booksellers are being eaten by lions and their screams are rare amusement.
You need to seduce me to come into your store. You must woo me. Entice me. Hypnotize me. Romance me. Make me want to read inside your store and only there. Make me associate every good story I’ve ever read with your store and your store alone. It’s not easy. Few can do this. You can’t be a bookseller to do this. You must understand the theater. Drama. A bookseller is just a shopkeeper. The lowest form of business person. You booksellers bore me. You offer nothing but a cash register. Your little tables of new hardbacks are pathetic because they imitate. They do not inspire. My bookstore would not have a table of strategic bestsellers facing cover-out at the customers. It would have a model railroad. The customers could drive the trains. It would have a chalkboard or an easel where poets and artists could write, paint and rant or whatever they wanted to do. It would sell coffee and wine. There would be a popcorn popper. Customers could walk around with little bowls of popcorn while browsing. My dry cleaner does this. It’s genius. I eat popcorn every time I go to the cleaners! They sell hotdogs from a cart too! My bookstore would sell hotdogs. The reason my bookstore would do all these things is because I am not a boring person. I don’t like buying books from boring people. I like buying books from people who are a little crazy. Like Jeff Bezos. He’s a nut. That’s why Amazon is killing everybody.
There’s too much business analysis going on about books. The solution is getting missed. The solution is to be a nut. Make a bookstore that Barnes & Noble could not hope to duplicate. Make a bookstore that keeps customers guessing and wondering what that crazy nut-job of a bookseller is going to do next. Theater. Keep them wondering what’s going to happen next. Just like a good writer.
Kindles. Ebooks. Death to bookstores, right? Naaa. Come on now, you dimwitted bookstore owners, the Kindle provides you with all kinds of secret opportunities. Think! I have one. I’m reading one ebook after another and I get my newspapers through the thing. I also do my damnedest to customize my Kindle. I bought a leather folder to carry it in like a nice book. I bought a little light for it. I bought a silicon sleeve for it. What if a bookstore did all kinds of unique custom jobs for e-readers? My bookstore would get local artists to design cool custom e-reader jackets. I’d also sell ebooks. I’d get writers to submit their works and I’d format them as ebooks and sell them. I’d try to do special things like if a customer buys five print books they get a free ebook.
My bookstore would also take lessons from successful small bookstores around the world. Look at the picture of Shakespeare & Co. in Paris (photo from Most Interesting Bookstores of the World). Their facade makes me want to walk right in. It’s extremely inviting. I have seen very few small bookstores that manage to be inviting. I think dullards tend to open bookstores. We need more exciting people selling books. Less whining, more nutty innovation. If Sarah Palin wanted to do a book signing at my store I’d place her table right next to a giant poster of her face with a line of people throwing darts at it for prizes. Absolutely. Because I’m not boring.
Every once in a while a customer would open a book they’d purchased from me to find a unique one-of-a-kind artwork slipped inside. Surprise! Or a coupon for a free coffee. Not boring. Surprising.
I’d show films in my bookstore too. I’d blow peoples’ minds with projected films in 16mm. Old films. Experimental. Sci-fi. Cult. Whatever. Not boring.
Every once in a while a customer would open a book they’d purchased and find a little diatribe I’d written about the book. A review of sorts. Blow their minds. They’d come running back and they’d be mine all mine forever. You better believe it. I know what people want. I’m not boring.
I’d hand out walkie-talkies to couples so they could stay in contact as they browsed my shelves.
I’d lend books like a library. Cannibalize my own business! I’ll be laughing all the way to the bank.
I’d make my own audio books of public domain classics.
I’d make documentaries about writers, special readers, and events. And I’d show them in the store.
I’d hold writing contests and give away book prizes and hold public readings of the winners.
I’d show and sell art on my bookstore’s walls.
I’d design and program my own games based on literary works just like I’ve done here on this site (see Frankenstein – The Creature Must Die). Customers could play them in the store or online at home. Gee, maybe I should build games for bookstores. I wonder…
I’d pay very close attention to the entire e-Ink technology. This is the Gutenberg press of the modern world. If your attention is not here, you had better sell used cars because you are a nincompoop. E-Ink should somehow feature in my store. Perhaps in as simple a way as having an e-reader available for people to play with. As e-Ink displays get better and bigger, I’d have at least one in my store at all times.
I’d print little chapbooks and entire novels sort of like City Lights does in San Francisco. Lawrence Ferlinghetti who started City Lights is not a boring person. He’s interesting. That’s why he has a successful bookstore.
I would use my amazing charm to persuade famous writers to write little books or stories just for my store. They’d be available nowhere else.
I’d invite book censors from Iran to come and give talks about why books should be banned and why authors should be executed for insulting religions. Salman Rushdie would be signing books that night.
I’d invite Chinese authorities to come talk about banned books.
I’d invite religious people from school districts in the U.S. to come explain why The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should not be read by kids.
If I look at Amazon as a whole, I recognize that essentially what they have done is everything I’ve listed here. I don’t just look at Amazon’s book selling. I look at the site as an entire whole single thing. What does it tell me about running a bookstore? I do not view Amazon as a killer. I view Amazon as a teacher.
So, finally, if you’re a boring bookstore owner and you read my post and disagree with me, close your store quickly. The lions are coming.