Indie Bookstores Should Formally Become the Private Clubs They Already Are


Hear me out…at least SOME of them


B-b-b-but democracy and literacy. Books are for everyone.

Books and reading and literacy are for everyone. But bookstores aren’t. How do I know? Because bookstores struggle and we live in a supposed golden age for reading, not to mention shopping local and appreciating all things indie. Because Amazon. Because when I started as a book publisher in 1994, less than 7% of Americans went into a bookstore at least once in any given year. Do you suppose that number has gone up or down?

We do have libraries and Little Free Libraries and mass market paperback racks at drugstores, our own bookshelves and our friends’ bookshelves. And online we have bn.com and Amazon and IndieBound for new books, and AbeBooks, Alibris, Powell’s, Better World Books, Half Price Books, and ebay for used ones. Just about anyone who wants a frickin’ book to read can get one. If they can get one, they can get a hundred.

Here are some inconvenient truths about book buying and bookstores I’ve written about previously:

“Most of us who love books and read a lot of them simply can’t afford to buy, at least new and at full price, all of the books we read. For those whose income depends on books being purchased at a decent price and in sufficient quantities, this is an inconvenient truth that we don’t often give its due attention in our big-picture considerations and financial models.”

“If I lived in a neighborhood where I could walk to a bookstore, I would buy more books at bookstores. But I don’t. And I will read books whether or not there’s a bookstore by me. I won’t go out of my way to a bookstore if good books find their way to me before I happen to be near one. The publisher that I am winces. But it’s true.”


Imagine walking in and being greeted by name. A well-dressed employee takes your coat, umbrella, and backpack and stores them safely for you while asking if they can prepare your favorite beverage. You scan the well-appointed, or upscale funky, or Scandinavian sleek room. Nice lighting. Lush floral displays. Classical music or Ibiza trance or cool jazz plays faintly in the background. You let out a deep sigh as you savor all in front of you; the cares of the outside world drain away. After grabbing a best-seller from the display, the next installment in your favorite series, or something provocative from nonfiction and scanning it to your tab, you settle in a cozy nook in the back room where your favorite whisky awaits in a crystal tumbler. A concierge comes by with messages, packages, those tickets you asked about last week, and a booklight if you need one.

Books and escape — an evergreen combination and your luxury of choice.

 

I know, I know. Elitist bullshit. Yadda. Yadda. But I’m not kidding. And I didn’t say all bookstores, but I am suggesting it as a serious route for some. Even many. Consider the following and some of the idea’s commercial and experiential advantages:


Indie bookstores are already exclusive in their own way. Only a small percentage of the population cares enough about their continued existence. Only a small percentage can afford full-price books or prioritize such an expenditure. Throw in educational, cultural, and time availability issues and you have something that already only appeals to a narrow slice of consumers.


Exclusivity can enhance the value of buying books. I know you’re not a pompous snob. Me neither. But if membership is the price for the books they have and you want, perhaps the places formerly known as bookstores may acquire a different sense of worth to you.


Private clubs elicit commitment. You pay for something, you’re going to use it. Books matter to you? Put your money there.


Clubs de Book become destinations. Many of us, especially book lovers, do not go out of our way to go shopping. But we may go somewhere we’ve committed to through membership as a desirable, elevating, regular must-visit. A hangout place to chill and connect and have fascinating conversations with likeminded others. Enjoy a meal, a drink or two, and while away an afternoon. Can’t get that at Bezos’s joint.


People pay for experiences. That’s right. We all have heard that paying for experiences makes us happier than buying things. We’re not buying books over here, we’re having the experience of putting books on our tab at the club.


Supporting books, authors, and publishers is an identity issue. Again, already a truism. With club membership, we can alert others — or keep it smugly to ourselves — that we belong to a literary society, you know, we’re preserving the world of books, a culture of reading.


Build in the comfort and they will come and stay and spend money. The clubs I’m proposing are comfortable and relaxing, drawing you in with many levels of sensory and intellectual delights. You wouldn’t have to wait to get home to crack open your book. Instead, find a secluded sofa where you and your honey can canoodle into the wee hours with a nice bottle of wine, your own good reads, and occasional murmurs over the book tops when you want to share a passage.


Up the special events and classes. Many bookstores already offer all the things — book signings, writers' groups, book clubs, knitting circles — but a club could really pile it on. Guest lectures. String quartets and mimosas on Sundays. Wine pairings with local cheesemakers. Make your own book plates. Calligraphy for beginners.


Offer a new degree of author access. Pro forma book programs and author signings, of course, but also meet-and-greets, cocktail hours, backroom Q&As, soirées of all stripes.


Include concierge services and other amenities. Membership has its privileges. Clubs, aka bookstores, can offer a lot of conveniences and a wow factor without much expense. Little things that make members’ lives easier, feel DE-luxe, and will keep them handing over their monthly or annual dues. Take phone messages. Hold packages. Track down tickets. Make dinner reservations. Arrange for dog walkers. Food and beverage service.


Some bookstore employees already have the right vibe for this world. It’s introverted and reticent. But it can also be interpreted as properly restrained and aloof for club life. Bookstore employees as a lot are a literary and intellectual bunch; I say let — in a good way — their highbrow range free.


Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name. And they’re always glad you came. Cause making your way in the world today, takes everything you’ve got, taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot, wouldn’t you like to get away?


The idea already exists. To some degree. There’s a bookstore in Tokyo, Bunkitsu, that charges a $13 entrance fee (“owl cafés and robot hotels are so 2018”) for its “bookstore-museum-library-café hybrid.” It has an edgy design, an incredible collection of rare and unusual titles, unlimited coffee and green tea, and free Wi-Fi. There’s food. You can take off your shoes in the reading rooms


Create a network of clubs. If the idea catches on, private literary clubs could create a passport system that allows their members to visit such clubs in other cities when they travel. If enough stores go the club route, could it encourage more personality, variety, and regional flair from club to club? I’d hope so.


Finally, it could be a real value for the consumer. A monthly or annual membership commitment could be priced to have no built-in upcharge: A member gets back an equal amount of book and food/beverage credits on their tab, plus all the rest — exclusivity, amenities, first dibs on events, author access, club living. Club-stores could price memberships based on their typical or desired member-customer (and the realities of their overhead). Maybe that’s $20/month, enough for a paperback and a good cup of coffee once a month. Maybe it’s a $100/month, which could cover a few books and a few drinks once a month. Members might let their credits accrue a bit and entertain guests at the club here and there. Or, spend a bunch of it at the holidays for gifts, then kick back on a velvet chaise for a martini respite. Naturally, a member can always spend more than the base fee on books, booze, and special events, as long as they keep current on their tab.

 

Read about my ideas for a wider variety of nightclub options — many just the sort of things readers and book lovers might like for a night out: The Dil Pickle: An Inspiration to Expand Nightlife Options Everywhere: 5 ideas to get entrepreneurs started and draw new crowds out of their homes.


And my suggestion that an RV Lifestyle for Authors and Writers is needed right now.