My bookstore experience

. . . or why I'm likely to buy my next few thousand books on-line

I happen to have been spending a bit of time in bookstores lately. Some of these experiences have been amazing. I have met booksellers, in independent stores and in chains, who have an incredible relationship with their customers. Their stores are places I as a reader would want to wander into, even if I was miles and miles from home.

But the other day, when I wasn’t miles and miles from home, I wandered into a large chain store and came away as depressed about bookselling as I have ever been. Because the people who run that store clearly have no clue about what they’re doing.

Let me say that the two hardcover books I have out currently were readily available, and received much more prominent display than many other books in the store. Some of my backlist was there as well. I appreciate that. I am extremely grateful for the support the store has given me. As a writer, I have been fortunate and treated better than many.

But I wasn’t there as a writer; I came as a reader and a customer. And the general health of this store, and by extension all bookstores and the writers whose work is sold there, depends on how readers are treated.

The experience was, in a word, hell.

It wasn’t just the fact that a good quarter of the store’s floor space, if not more, was given over to non-book items such as games, stationery, etc. Now this wouldn’t be horrible for the store if people were spending a lot of money in these sections – even though the markups in many cases didn’t approach what the store could get for books. But these aisles were empty of people. The selection of items was poor, and the number of items, compared to how many books might have been positioned there, was pitiful.
I don’t necessarily put a lot of stock in the best-seller lists, but they are something of an indication of what people want to buy at any given moment. Did this store make it easy for people to find those books?
No. In fact, you had to hunt around for many of them – if you bothered. Your impulse buying was directed to “bargain books” – things that hadn’t sold elsewhere in the past. Many best sellers weren’t prominently displayed anywhere in the store – maybe a good thing, since the store didn’t seem to have much stock of them.

On the other hand, books that had a good deal of promotional money or other consideration attached were piled everywhere. The only problem was, customers didn’t seem to want those, even with the discounts they were offering.

It got worse the deeper you went. The main shelves were a mess. The layout of the books was terrible. With the exception of romance and very obvious genre mysteries, fiction was a catchall for every type of novel. Defoe nestled next to DeFelice.

I love the association myself, but I’m kind of wondering if someone looking for Robinson Crusoe is going to be interested in Andy Fisher or Jack Pilgrim.

Even in the difficult to navigate nonfiction areas, the selection was chaotic. A great number of the books appear to have been on the shelves for years. There is no attempt to highlight the most recent (and most popular) selections – say the most recent summary of World War II, which has had good reviews and relatively strong sales. If you’re looking for it, you’ll come across the store’s single copy in the wrong section, though at least in the same general area.

Things were even worse over in the music section. I hunted for a half-hour, back and forth, looking for an album that has been the most popular music CD for a significant portion of the last twelve months. I eventually found it by accident. It was actually in a display unit, but the display unit had been shoved into the back to section and situated so that it was almost impossible to find.

Most of the rest of the music selections were, in a word, obscure. There was a smattering of oldies, but this seemed haphazard at best. Finding anything popular, even in rock, was difficult. This might have been acceptable or understandable if there was a comprehensive catalog of alternative music, maybe some vinyl, or things the wannabe hipster manning the department might have liked – but the selection there was, to be extremely generous, spotty.

I realize CDs are on the way out, but the sales are still, in raw numbers, fairly significant . . . though let me go out on a limb here and say, not at this store, despite the floor space devoted to them.
About that wannabe hipster – the store happened to be running a promotion for a local girls school. The idea was that ten percent of the proceeds would go to the school if you mentioned the school when you checked out. I had their flier in hand but forgot to mention the school until the very end of the transaction, at which point wannabe told me they would not get the ten percent.

In an instant, what had started as a feel-good, we’re part of the community venture, turned one hundred and eighty degrees against the store. Standing at the register, I now felt that the store, even beyond its disorganization and inept retailing, was actively evil.

I told the hipster that he could cancel my sale. Only the groans of the people around me made me reconsider. That and the fact that the gift cards I was planning to use for the purchase would now simply go to waste, because I will never shop in that store again.

And as you might guess, I happen to spend a lot of money each year on books. And this store happens to be the closest and largest near me.

Beyond doing a better job training and managing staff, this chain ought to take a much closer look at themselves. They should think about the experience people have buying books on-line – how easy it is, how selections are suggested, how different items are marketed, connections made, etc.

I wouldn’t tell them how to run their business if over the years they hadn’t told me, in so many words, how to run mine. I’m glad I never took their advice, because clearly they haven’t a clue about what it is they do, let alone what anyone else in the world is up to.

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