Last Sunday, when passing Barnes & Noble in Pasadena, my uncle told me that it seemed the last chain bookstore in Los Angeles. Even though I was aware that the digital onslaught of e-books has put bricks-and-mortar bookstores in an existential predicament, I was still surprised to learn that the condition is so severe. However, independent bookstores such as Elliott Bay, seek a way out of the plight, enjoying steady growth in sales and customers.
When Barnes & Noble’s sales decreased by 3.4% in its most recent fiscal year, sales of independent bookstores grew by 8% in 2012. Since 2009 more independent bookshops have opened than closed in America. How to survive and even to thrive in the winter of print media? The answers lie in experiences generated in independent bookstores.
According to Pine and Gilmore, we move from the commodity business, the goods business, the service business to an experience business, which charges for the feeling customers get by engaging it. Sellers orchestrate memorable events for their customers, and that memory itself becomes the product – the “experience”. The commonly mentioned example is Starbucks, selling not the cup of coffee, but the memory spending with friends.
Bookstore owners also apply this concept in improving “the experience of buying books” in their stores. Elliott Bay, a family-owned book company in Seattle, is celebrating its 40th anniversary. In the local area it is seen as a bit of a cultural icon. Peter Aaron, the owner, suggests that the advantage of his store is that it is small enough to get to know their customers well. They see them, they talk to them, they recognize regulars, and they know how to keep them coming back. For customers, going to Elliott Bay is not only to buy books, but also to visit an old family friend. The intimacy cultivates the brand loyalty.
Another kind of experience of buying books I have encountered was in Librairie Avant-Garde, my favorite bookstore in my hometown, Nanjing, China. Walking into a former bomb shelter, you are in the country’s largest single-floor bookstore – 4,000 square meters. The warm light of reading lamps, the portraits of the most accomplished artists, such as Picasso and Van Gogh hang on the roof, the famous verses carved on the wall, and a faint scent of coffee, separates it from the real world, leading you to the wonderland of books. Comfortable couches, free wifi, coffee bars and countless books turn it into a best place to hang around for an entire afternoon. Occasionally, Librairie Avant-Garde will organize lectures and live concerts, inviting the author to discuss their works. Moreover, there is a souvenir shop selling as many as 3,000 kinds of creative products. An independent team is dedicated to the design and production of these “little gadgets for the young”.
Independent bookstore as Librairie Avant-Garde transforms itself into a concept bookstore and books are only the byproduct for customers. What they really buying is an experience of consuming culture and art, a relaxed and artistic lifestyle.
However, when the souvenir shop in Librairie Avant-Garde has made double the profits compared to book sales, some people may ask whether the prosperity of independent bookstores provides the solution for print book revival. Or it is only a fake prosperity.
D, G. (2013). The future of the bookstore:A real cliffhanger. http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2013/02/future-bookstore
G, H. (2013). Independent bookstore: Reading between the lines. http://www.economist.com/blogs/schumpeter/2013/08/independent-bookshops
Han, B. (2011). Librairie Avant-Garde opens a new chapter . http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/culture/2011-08/16/content_13121244.htm
Pine, J. and Gilmore, J. (1999) The Experience Economy. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.