Barnes & Noble News, and Speculation On The Future of Bookstores

News outlets report that B&N founder Leonard Riggio wants to buy out the retail assets of Barnes & Noble.

It strikes me that this could portend the return of "catalog stores", the way department stores (Sears, Wards) marketed themselves outside big urban areas many, many years ago.  These were smaller storefronts in smaller communities.  There might be some samples of popular goods, or even minature models of large items like furniture, but it particuarly gave people a venue where they could browse the big catalogs offering thousands of items (or come in with a list from their home-delivered catalogs) and order what they wanted.

With bookstores, it might work with a combo-type store.  Keep the coffee/cafe areas, where people can sit and relax.  Browsing books might be done in a variety of ways:  Bestsellers and highly marketed items might have the full books available, for people to be able to buy immediately.  Publishers might provide sample chapbooks containing anywhere from a few to 50 pages, excerpts from books being pushed but not as hard as the bestsellers.  There could be racks of publicity sheets for still other books for customers to browse through.

There'd also be plenty of electronic displays and kiosks.  Cafe tables would have built-in displays, or wi-fi for customers' own devices.  This enables still more browsing, with touch-screen access to further information or sample excerpts.

One easy thing to do with those displays is to display a shelf of books SPINE-OUT.  One of the annoying things about shopping for books online is that the screens always show the covers of the books.  That's one of the reasons I stil like to go to brick-and-mortar bookstores, where the vast majority of books are shelved spine-out.  When you're a frequent or complusive reader (and there are still quite a few of us), you have an awareness of what's going on in your preferred genres or areas of interest.  At a regular bookstore, I can browse through thousands of spine-out books, looking for familiar or interesting authors and titles, in a short period of time.  Doing the same with online, cover-out, displays takes... a LONG time.

Using touch-screen technology, you could touch a title on that spine-out display and convert it to a full-cover image.  Provide a button on that full-cover image, touch, and you get a more in-depth screen with jacket copy, reviews, excerpts, etc.

You choose a book you want, then what?  If you're a regular customer, you might have a customer card with a bar code/magnetic strip.  Have a card reader built into the display, and just swipe your card.  If you want an e-book version, and your portable device is wi-fi enabled, you can download it on the spot, with your account automatically billed.  If not, or you want a physical copy, the display might also be able to send your purchase info electronically to the front desk, or print out a physical receipt containing a bar code for your purchase.

You go to the front desk.  For e-books, the clerk hooks up your device to their server and downloads the book for you.  You're done and on your way.

If you want a hard-copy version of the book, these near-future bookstores will also have machines like the Exprsson Book Machine, capable of printing out and binding a hard-copy with 5-10 minutes.  Place your order, enjoy a cup of coffee and a doughnut, pick up your completed book, and you're done.

I'm not certain if this will best happen with a central, controlling retailer, or with franchise-type operations, or by a return of independent booksellers.  (There'd be smaller overhead for square footage, but larger overhead for equipment.)

The near-future bookstore wil need to combine the best attributes of both brick-and-mortar bookstores and the online book sites.  I think the above description comes pretty close.

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