“Given a good pitch and the right amount of capital,” George Orwell wrote in an early essay, "any educated person ought to be able to make a small secure living out of a bookshop.… [Y]ou start at a great advantage if you know anything about the insides of books.” It is “a humane trade which is not capable of being vulgarized beyond a certain point.”
The work had its downsides, and Orwell’s candor made his assessment that much more credible. You should be prepared to accept extremely long hours, for example, and to deal with customers who are garrulous or insane or both. Worst of all, to work in a bookstore meant risking a distinct kind of burnout: “Seen in the mass, five or ten thousand at a time, books [become] boring and even slightly sickening.” But the entrepreneur who carves out a suitable niche will at least be immune to monopolistic forces: “The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman.”
Good advice -- for 1936, anyway. Today, any educated person hoping to earn a small secure living (or a tiny, insecure one, for that matter) would do better to try almost anything else. Or so I took as a given until a couple of weeks ago, when Tony Sanfilippo, the marketing and sales director for Penn State University Press, sketched out his conceptual blueprint for an offline bookstore of the not-too-distant future. (“Offline bookstore” seems like the very 2010s sort of expression.) I don’t know if his plan will turn the tide, but it certainly deserves more consideration than it’s received so far.
Writing at The Digital Digest, one of the Association of American University Presses's blogs, Sanfilippo proposed a new model for bookselling that recognizes how much many of us miss the opportunity to browse and loiter somewhere in three dimensional space. Rather than fighting the trends that have undermined bookstores, he incorporates them into his design. And the product -- oddly enough – contains lost elements of 18th- and 19th-century book culture.
“Imagine you’re walking downtown,” he writes, “and you see a sign for a new business, That Book Place. Cool, you think to yourself, an idiot with money they apparently don’t need has opened a new bookstore in my community. I’m going to go check that out before it goes out of business. So you cross the street and walk in. In front is what you might expect, big stacks of The Hunger Games trilogy, a book of erotica for moms that appears to have something to do with the Pantone variations between PMS 400 and PMS 450, and a new cookbook teaching the virtues of artisanal water boiling.”
So far, so Borders (R.I.P.). Once past the bestsellers, you find an Espresso Book Machine, churning out volumes that customers have special-ordered. (In his post at Digital Digest, Sanfilippo indicates that three million titles are available for printing on demand, but in an e-mail note he tells me it’s actually seven million.)
That Book Place also has shelves and shelves carrying a mixture of new and used books, with price stickers giving the customer a variety of options. You can have a brand-new copy shipped to you the next day, or buy it used, or rent it, or get it as an e-book. If you take out a membership in the store, you can borrow a book for free, or get a copy without the Digital Rights Management (DRM) scheme that limits it to use on a specific kind of device.
In effect, the bookstore becomes a combination lending library and product showroom. “The books in the store shouldn’t be the focus of the revenue,” writes Sanfilippo. “Instead, the revenue might come from membership fees, book rentals, and referral fees for drop shipped new copies or e-book sales.”
People who take out a membership in the store would become stakeholders in its success -- not just customers, but patrons. Under that arrangement, Sanfilippo says, “a publisher might have a reason to trust the store and those members with DR-free files.” And the flexibility of options for acquiring a book -- whether for keeps or to borrow -- might undercut the consumer practice of browsing at a brick-and-mortar store, then buying online.
As someone who’s purchased a fair number of books in print-on-demand editions, I’ll add that ordering one in a store sounds more appealing than doing so online. You’d get it faster, for one thing, with the bonus of being able to watch as the book is made.
Well into the 18th century, when you bought a new volume from a bookseller, it arrived from the publisher without a binding, to be prepared on the premises according to the customer’s specifications. You could ask to have blank pages interspersed throughout it, for example, for note-taking -- one casualty of progress worth regretting. Sanfilippo’s model takes us back to that arrangement, at least part of the way. The quality of on-demand printing is not up to handcraft standards, but it's certainly improved over time. (In the case of late 19th-century books, the on-demand copy is often more durable than the original.)
Sanfilippo's proposal also resembles the circulating or subscription libraries that flourished in the 19th century. You'd join the library for a fee that gave you access to the collection. But as we discussed his bookstore model by e-mail, Sanfilippo indicated the seed for it might have been planted by something his mother did as a child.
“The Chicago suburban subdivision I grew up in was supposed to have a library in it,” he wrote. “On the end of our block, the developer promised to build a library building for the community, but, after the last house sold, the developer skipped town and left a vacant lot. My mother and a few other parents in the neighborhood figured there had to be another way.”
And there was: “They petitioned and got a referendum on the ballot to start a library district -- a taxing body specifically for a library. They succeeded and that library still serves that community. But how do you then appropriate that kind of revenue stream for a bookstore?… A business that sells shares of itself to its customers is not unlike a group of parents that tax themselves, and in this instance, both are to ensure access to books and book culture within a community.”
In short, That Book Place might function best if were run as a nonprofit enterprise or a co-op -- perhaps both. It's no substitute for decently funded public libraries, of course, but try getting a tax for anything but a stadium passed these days. The arrangement Sanfilippo proposes might not work out for any number of reasons, and he admits as much. The hardware for in-store book production alone runs into six figures.
But that hardly seems like an insurmountable obstacle for people willing to experiment and able to take the risk. As experimental initiatives for public-minded institutions go, Sanfilippo's idea seems like a natural. And the return on investment might be of incalculable benefit.
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