The Indie Store of the Future

Reading Lorina’s rankings of Independent bookstores in previous post, I tried to imagine the sort of store I (Robert) would like to see.

My vision of the independent bookstore of the future is one with an Espresso Machine, a coffee bar, a flat screen monitor flashing random 30 second shots of coverart/coverblurbs from the available Espresso catalog, and a set of bookshelves filled with ‘staff picks’ off the Espresso machine. Maybe a couple of computer stations fixed to a site like GoodReads. The customer comes in, orders a latte, and as they wait, talking to their friends, they can watch the screen flashing unexpected covers or browse the shelves to find books that will NEVER show up in Chapters/Borders/Barnes&Noble. Since every book on the shelf is by definition something the store/staff thought worth the $15-30 Espresso printing cost to display, you only see books the people behind the coffee bar know and are prepared to discuss with you.

If a title or cover intrigues you and you buy the book, the Espresso Book Machine automatically prints off another to replace it as they scan the barcode in at the till, and the space is filled ten minutes later. The store never has to stock more than a single copy of any book, but unlike on-line shopping, you can actually pick up the book and leaf through it to make a more informed decision. (And the display of actual books encourages browsing among the latte drinkers in a way that an online page may not.)

And when customers come in and ask for a book that isn’t on the shelves, it’s ready for them at the same time as their latte — and the staff ask the customer about the book, and sometimes, if it sounds like it might be interesting, they’ll decide to print off a second copy to put on the “customer recommendations’ shelf.

Really hot titles might justify a second copy behind the first on the shelf in case the latte bar gets busy; and the presence of a second copy becomes an obvious physical sign that this book is a best seller (at least locally). Titles that start to move more slowly are replaced with a photocopy of the cover — want to look at it, we’ll print off a copy for you with no obligation, because we’re pretty sure the book is popular enough that we can sell it eventually. But if nobody ever asks for it, the photocopy is retired at essentially no cost to the store.

Once every six months they have a half-price sale to get rid of the books that never sold even that first display copy; or a dutch auction where the price is reduced a little bit further each day until it finally sells. I could see that working pretty well to clear out unwanted books. At some point, following the big half price sale, would be ‘Refresh the Shelves Day” or whatever it would be called, a sort of Grand Re-Opening, as essentially all new titles are rolled out — at the very least, ‘refresh the shelves day’ would probably move a lot of extra lattes, as people come in to see what’s new!

No more going from bookstore to bookstore to find a copy of a book you need tonight for tomorrow’s class or book club meeting or just because you really need book three in the series NOW— it’s always in the store you entered because every book is. No waiting for three days for shipping from Online venues.

And writer events — readings, signings, panels, would go without saying. Listen to the reading, then decide if you’d like the book — if you did, they can print off a copy for the author to sign before you’ve made it to the head of the line up at the signing table.

It’s not just that this approach has the advantages of Print On Demand (no shipping or warehousing costs, very little wastage/remaindering; books remain in print much longer; and can service smaller niche markets than legacy publishers) but that it promotes community and communication. Since the books displayed reflect staff and customer tastes, one could anticipate each locale developing its own bestsellers, its own underground hits and guilty reads; the customer base would slowly evolve until the coffee shop bookstore becomes the hang out for particular genres or authors, etc. You’d know when you walked in that — unlike Starbucks next door — everyone who came here not only could read, but chose to buy their coffee there because they wanted to talk books, at least some of the time. It would be one place where “read any good books lately” wouldn’t just be a pick up line.

Robert Runte


  1. I love the bookstore of the future picture that you paint, Robert. This vision would have fit nicely in a recent panel discussion I was on regarding the Bookstore of the Future.

    Technology-wise, a store like one you describe could feasibly exist today. About the only difference is there would likely continue to be national bestsellers and other core titles produced by large printing houses, just due to the sheer volume and cost savings involved.

    If it's okay with you, I'm going to share the concept of the randomly generated book covers from the Espresso Book Machine catalog on in-store displays to my EBM colleagues – what a great way to incite some of that serendipidous experience of browsing for books in a physical setting.

  2. I simply love this concept, Robert, an expansion of the idea I put forth in a blog post November 6, 2007:

    It is my firm belief this sort of expansive vision is the kind of thinking required to revitalize indie bookstores, publishers and authors. Think of it as a grass-roots movement, the kind of thing that used to happen in coffee shops of the Regency Era(or Empire, depending on your preference.) It was in the coffee shops of Europe 'best-sellers' were determined, where ideas and literature were discussed. Why not reclaim that dynamic, with a modern twist, and return literature, and what it is and becomes, to the people?

  3. Sure Mark, go ahead and share.
    I would have loved to have been at that idea exchange discussion of bookstore of the future. And as you say, I can't understand why it isn't here yet. I agree that there will always be best sellers and that's fine by me — but they will be carried by Indigo and drugstores and Costco etc and I'll buy those too. But I don't see how independents can survive competing head on with the economies of scale of those national chains — as I suggested in my previous post, I see the market bifurcating into a mass market dominated by legacy publishers and bookstore chains, and an independent stream of self-published and micropublishers selling through independent bookstores. POD/Espresso delivery makes selling books in runs in the low thousands nation-wide perfectly feasible for independent writers/publishers/stores, whereas you need at least two more zeros to make it possible for the corporate publishers and chains. Independents don't need to sell 100 copies of a national best seller if they can sell 5 copies of 20 independent authors not carried in the national chain or drugstores….

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