Bookstores as Social Hubs and Education

Clay Shirky, from a recent post on his blog about bookstores:

The local bookstore creates all kinds of value for its community, whether its providing community bulletin boards, putting rocking chairs in the kids section, hosting book readings, or putting benches out in front of the store. Local writers, harried parents, couples on dates, all get value from a store’s existence as a inviting physical location, value separate from its existence as a transactional warehouse for books.

The store doesn’t get paid for this value. It gets paid for selling books. That ecosystem works — when it works — as long as the people sitting in those rocking chairs buy enough books, on average, to cover the added cost of having the chairs in the first place. The blows to that model have been coming for some time, from big box retailers stocking best sellers to online sales (especially second-hand sales) to the spread of ebooks to, now, price wars.

A while ago I asked a question on twitter that got no responses. Basically, the question was this: We always talk about the industries crashing in the digital economy. But where are the models of survival?

In other words, it’s great to tell college administrators they shouldn’t be like the record companies or the newspapers. But where are the inspiring stories of industries that changed? Because frankly if we’re all going down anyway, why not just double down on failure and cross your fingers?

It occurs to me that bookstores are a great example of an industry that survived through evolution. As Shirky points out in his post (emphasis mine):

Online bookselling improves on many of the core functions of a bookstore, not just price and breadth of available books, but ways of searching for books, and of getting recommendations and context. On the other hand, the functions least readily replicated on the internet — providing real space in a physical location occupied by living, breathing people — have always been treated as side effects, value created by the stores and captured by the community, but not priced directly into the transactions.

All of this makes it clear what those bookstores will have to do if the profits or revenues of the core transaction fall too far: collect revenue for the side-effects.

The most famous version of this is bookstore-as-coffeeshop, where the revenues from coffee subsidize the lingering over books and vice-versa, but other ways of generating revenue are possible. Reservable space for book clubs, writers rooms, or study carrels; membership with buy-back options for a second-hand book market run out of the same space; certain shopping hours reserved for members or donors; use of volunteer labor, like a food coop; sponsorships from the people or businesses in the neighborhood most interested in the social value of the store and most interested in being known as local machers.

Local bookstores have survived much longer than I would have predicted. And in the world where Amazon’s name recognition is pretty much ubiquitous, the mega-chains have actually grown.

But unlike local record shops, which have largely disappeared outside of major metropolitan areas, and chain record shops (of the Strawberries and Coconuts variety) that where still extant seem to have that slight eau-de-Radio-Shack, bookstores have survived. And they did so primarily by embracing and emphasizing their function as a social hub — increasing the readings, providing other means of subsidizing the activities of the store (coffee shops, etc).  In fact, bookstores did this so well and record stores so poorly that in country where book sales generate a fraction of the revenue music does, the average consumer is probably more likely to buy a CD in a bookstore at this point than a record store.

There’s problems with this analysis, sure.  But I wonder if it provides at least a partially positive model for campus-based education in general, if only because I’m drawing a blank on any other significant broadband survivors….

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