Bookstores in the Digital Age

With the rise of e-readers and the fall of Borders, the fate of physical bookstores is at a crossroads.  On one hand, e-books are more eco-friendly, cheaper, and convenient.  At the same time, there’s just something about the feel of a book, and by extension, browsing through bookstore shelves.

Earlier this week, I went to happy hour with a friend at Kramerbooks, in Washington, DC.  Yes, you heard right.  I went to happy hour at a bookstore, which also functions as a cafe, bar, and live music venue.

The business model at Kramerbooks is something that I believe would work well in maintaining the relevance of independent bookstores.  While the bookstore itself isn’t as large as a chain bookstore, the selection is well-cultivated.  The booksellers are knowledgeable (I had a conversation with one about Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. LeGuin), and one gets a wholly different experience than one does buying books on the internet.  Meanwhile, the cafe and bar make going to the bookstore a social occasion.  Sure, other bookstores host readings and have a community focus, but having a cafe and bar makes it so easy to stay later, relax, and browse.  Furthermore, they increase revenue at a time when most bookstores are in dire financial trouble.

As someone who recently got a Kindle, I’m convinced of the fact that e-books are here to stay.  At the same time, I don’t think that they will ever entirely replace physical books.  I am of the opinion that if publishers worked a bit on the appearance and feel of paperbacks, perhaps by using nicer papers and a variety of unique cover art, that people will still continue to buy and collect them.  However, in a time when e-books are accessible instantaneously, bookstores need to continue to provide an experience that one can’t find in the virtual world.

37 thoughts on “Bookstores in the Digital Age

  1. I have always wanted to live in or near Washington, DC–history nerd–but now that I know that a bookstore has happy hour, well I’m sold! It is funny, I wrote about a bookstore today, but in a totally different context. But still funny.

    1. DC’s an interesting city. Having a bookstore like this one is neat, especially because when I moved here, it was from a rural where the nearest bookstore was a half hour drive away, and since it was so small even books that one would assume to be standard would have to be special-ordered.

      I think that a lot of the people who hate Amazon don’t remember those days, or choose to forget them. 😛

      1. I don’t think I’ve ever lived 30 minutes from a bookstore. Which may explain the amount of books I have. But, like you, I would just order from Amazon. I couldn’t do without.

        1. Haha, I think that sometimes I buy books just because I grew up not being able to run to the bookstore whenever I wanted. I get excited when I find bookstores that carry books that I don’t see very often, or that I wouldn’t expect them to. Even now that I have a Kindle, I still find myself going to bookstores and buying books just as often, lol.

            1. I still know where it is. I just have a lot of books on my list of books to read… 😛

              Edit: I’m also in the middle of “War of the Worlds.”

  2. It certainly is a time for bookstores and even libraries to prove their relevance by doing more to get customers in the door. I wish my local Barnes and Noble would do more than just follow the same old, same old business model. Just hiring some decent employees would be nice. Now there are several very sweet, nice, helpful people that work at my local BN, but I am often frustrated by their store policies on shelving books as well as the way they take care of certain sections of the store, particularly the SFF section.

    Last week I had occasion to stop by more store 3 different times over the course of a 5 day week. There were books in the new hardback face out section of SFF that were not SFF and had obviously just been dumped unceremoniously by someone who decided against their purchase. Those books, and all the other messed up books, stayed that way all week. Meaning no one had bothered to even look at the section all week long. In addition to that they are notorious about shelving new books up at the front of the store and not including any of those same new books back in the actual section they are classified, be it SFF, Mystery, etc.

    It is that kind of haphazard, lazy work ethic/store policy that will eventually lead to its demise.

    1. When I worked at Borders I would get so frustrated with the way they categorized books. I’m not sure who came up with the system, but it drove me (I shelved books) and the customers crazy. The biggest complaint was that we didn’t have a biography section. Instead the book would be placed in the person’s field. For example, Dickens would be in literature and Einstein would be in the science section. However, what do you do with a Ben Franklin who had several things he was good at: politics, diplomacy, science, history.

      A few weeks ago I was in a bookstore looking for a copy of War and Peace. I couldn’t find it and I was starting to think the bookstore sucked since it was Tolstoy. Most decent size bookstores should have some of Tolstoy’s works. But I found it in the travel section, in the Russia section. I was surprised. Other great writers, Faulkner, Tolkien, Steinbeck…and more were in the literature section. Dickens was in the travel section for England. I don’t understand that method either.

      1. When I go to Barnes & Noble, I find myself reorganizing the sci-fi/fantasy section. I’m a bit OCD about out of order books, especially when they only have one copy of many of them…

        1. I find myself fixing the books and creating face outs like we did in Borders, when we had a lot of copies of the same book. I can’t help it.

          1. Haha, that’s even more than I do… I just can’t stand it when they’re not alphabetized by author. Seeing a Brandon Sanderson in the middle of the Anne McCaffrey section makes me irritable. I can only see this getting worse when I’m done with library school. 😛

          2. LOL, I create face outs as well, especially when the stock is low and there are big gaps. I either face out authors I particularly love or book covers that strike my fancy.

        2. Science-fiction/fantasy? The hell? Whoever made up that genre needs to be killed.or killed again. Reading more non-fiction than fiction I can say that they have no real home for any mathematics by itself, its often placed mostly in the natural sciences under physics.

          Also there is a major difference between science-fiction and sci-fi.

          1. I think that grouping science fiction and fantasy together in bookstores makes sense, partially because there are a lot of similarities between the genres, and partly because the publishers tend to overlap… Tor is one of the big ones, and they release pretty much exclusively fantasy and sci-fi. Bookstore classifications are mostly based on making things easy for customers; libraries have far better nonfiction classification, even though the Dewey Decimal system does have its share of flaws.

        3. I constantly reshelve and rearrange books in Barnes and Nobe’s SFF section. Decades ago when I worked in a tiny mall bookstore I would have killed to have that large of a SFF section to play with, so whenever I’m there and see things a big mess I’ll fix it just because I have an affection for the genre and don’t want to see it denigrated by having a crappy looking area.

          1. Is it just me, or does the SFF section of bookstores tend to be one of the more disorganized ones in general? I know that in the B&N here, the literary fiction section is always arranged impeccably, but the SFF section is always a mess…

              1. The Borders that I went to had a better organized SFF section, but it was a lot of fluff and I could never find anything I wanted. The B&N one is half the size, but has a far better selection.

              2. Both stores for me never seemed to do everything well. Our Borders had a smaller section but kept much more hardback and trade of older stuff in stock and got more of the smaller publishers in a timely manner, like Pyr and Orbit. My BN sometimes doesn’t get them at all and keeps things stocked in very strange ways.

      2. That sounds incredibly disorganized. I’d be frustrated if there was literature in the travel section. It also bothers me when stores have a biography section but organize it by the author’s last name instead of the last name of the person who the biography is about, as it makes it impossible to look for something specific.

  3. I’m tempted by the dea to do this in our town…
    But I’m so not sure it would work.
    We have a lot of independent bookstores but the major problem is space. I rather see a bar expand and start to inlcude and book store.

      1. I walked by a pizza place the other day and they had copies of books for their customers to read while there. I had never seen that before. I know coffee places do that and some pubs, but a pizza place. They must sell really larges pizzas that take time to cook and to eat.

  4. I worked for several years at a large Borders. One of the reasons we couldn’t spend as much time ordering our sections was because we had to constantly sweep through the cafe to gather up the books and magazines left there by lazy customers who would read ’em and leave ’em. Anyone opening a combined cafe, bar and bookstore is going to have to find a solution to this problem!

    1. I didn’t notice that being a problem at Kramers, but it might be because they treat the cafe/bar area as more of a sit-down restaurant, which makes it easier to monitor what customers are doing with their books. I’m sure that picking up all of the books that people dump haphazardly would be frustrating!

  5. that’s awesome. i had an idea to do that with a comic bookstore. but i didn’t.

    i definitely have mixed feelings about e-books, but ultimately technology ends up winning me over for its convenience and lack of clutter in my life.

    1. I think that e-books and regular books will continue to coexist. I just wish that there were e-book versions of more textbooks, because those take up a lot of space and tend to be heavy…

      A comic book bar would be awesome. 😀

  6. I don’t think I’ll ever stop buying physical books! I still love the excitement of browsing through bookstore shelves, and wondering of what to read next. I love your blog! 🙂

  7. I have not yet invested in an e Reader, and I’m not sure if I ever will because I do love the experience of going to bookstores and being able to feel the pages turn, and see how far I’ve read into a book.
    For me going to a bookstore is almost always a social experience. My friends and I used to meet at a Borders every Friday and hang out. Now we can’t do that anymore, and we’re all sad about it.

    1. I was a bit hesitant at first, because I also love going to bookstores and browsing, but I do like having an e-reader too. I still go to bookstores though, and I buy an equal balance of e-books and physical books.

      My boyfriend and I like going on dates to bookstores. 😀

  8. Books are going to stay. Brick and mortar bookstores are going to stay. However, people are needed to buy from those stores, too.

    It’s great that you love to have dates in bookstores, and at the same time you love your Kindle. Something doesn’t compute here.

    How about used books? There are still a number of them around in the DC area. Decent used books are definitely cheaper than a download from Amazon. Go to the Washington Antiquitarian Booksellers Association website ( to see the number of used bookstores in the Washington-Baltimore metro area. Plus, there are more around since not all of the used book stores are members of WABA.

    One last thihg… a local new/used bookstore (mom & pop) return nearly 70% to the local economy, a corporate chain store returns around 15% to the local economy, but amazon returns ZERO percent to the local economy. Think about that the next time somone needs assistance from local or state government…

    1. I mostly buy books used from a local bookstore, in fact, the Book Bank in Old Town Alexandria has the best sci-fi/fantasy selection of any bookstore in the area. I’m about 50/50 between books that I read on my Kindle and printed books. I use my Kindle mostly for review copies, public domain texts, backlist titles, and books that are on special. I don’t think that e-books are going to replace physical books, but that the two can coexist.

      I don’t like to bash Amazon because I used to live in a small town without access to a local bookstore. Amazon was a godsend when it showed up. It’s not perfect, and it does engage in questionable business practices, but things have definitely improved if you live in small towns since the days before you could order books on the internet.

Comments make me happy! Please feel free to leave a reply.