The Experience Economy: the Prosperity of Independent Bookstores

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.

Experience Economy (Source:

Experience Economy (Source:

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.

Elliott Bay in Seattle (Source:

Elliott Bay in Seattle

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.

Librairie Avant-Garde, located in a former bomb shelter. (Sourse:

Librairie Avant-Garde, located in a former bomb shelter. (Sourse:

Librairie Avant-Garde, the name card for Nanjing. (Sourse:

Librairie Avant-Garde, the name card for Nanjing. (Sourse:

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.

G, H. (2013). Independent bookstore: Reading between the lines.

Han, B. (2011). Librairie Avant-Garde opens a new chapter .

Pine, J. and Gilmore, J. (1999) The Experience Economy. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

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4 Responses to The Experience Economy: the Prosperity of Independent Bookstores

  1. Mengchu says:

    I think that many stores are trying to think outside the box and find a way out in the digital age. In the past, people went to book store for books. Nowadays they can get the books online, which gives them enough reason not to bother going to the stores. In this sense, the stores need to think: what else can they provide other than the books? I think experience in one of the answers.

    • Mirror says:

      Agree! Especially in the digital age, people become more and more lazy, prefer staying at home surfing the Internet, reading Kindle version of book to going out to book store buying a paper book. To gain a position in this digital age, bookstores have to come up with a new strategy, to link paper book to memeories an experiences. Going to bookstore is not for material stuff, but for emotional connection. The role of bookstore totally changes over time. However, the question I am thinking about is that whether this kind of experience can really keep these customers. It is popular now since it is a new trend. What if people get used to this kind of selling and abandon it in the future?

  2. shashali says:

    Interesting topic. Before coming to the U.S., when I was in my senior year in China, I noticed that more and more students were rushing to some of the famous independent bookstores to read books, drink brewed coffees and take photos in vintage styles (and show iphones or macbooks). It seems that reading was no longer the reason for them to go to bookstores. Instead, they are chasing something else. The style was called xiaozi or xiao qingxin in Chinese, meaning something similar to vintage and “well-off” experience. I think in China, it is this style’s getting popular that leads the bookstores to create experiences to fulfill their increasing needs. But my concerns, which is also the reason that I do not like independent bookstores is that the core purpose of a bookstore, of printed books will be diminishing in the future. Are people coming for books and reading? I thinks the whole advertising and marketing industry is facing the same challenge. The purpose of selling is switching from real benefits and functions to pure profits. (I know I am kind of going to extreme, but studyding advertising and marketing sometimes makes me feel lost…)

    • Mirror says:

      Insightful comment! I have similar concern about independent bookstore just as I have written in the end of this blog, I am not sure whether it is a false prosperity or not.
      There are hundreds of surveys telling us that people now spending more time on TV and Internet than books. We seem losing the good habit of reading. I don’t want to be too pessimistic or old-fashioned, but it is really difficult to tell creating such experience in independent bookstores is a strategy that coaxing customers into purchasing or the effort to cultivate habits of reading. It is naive to think that bookstores are places to educate people, but it is also sad to see that it becomes a place that only profit matters.