[ Essay ] Can bookstores survive?

I have been using Amazon Kindle for a few years, and it has completely removed my need/desire/wish for paper books. I am a bookworm, and it was surprising that I could ditch a 30+ year-old habit in mere several months. But my eyeballs say reading e-ink is no different than following paper ink, and my fingertips say pressing a button is as comfortable as turning a page. You can’t win an argument against your body.

The same transformation occurred in my book purchasing habit. Nobody can beat online bookstores when it comes to the search function. No more wasted time by getting lost in the aisles or looking through the covers. All I have to do is search, click, read.

Looks like paper book is a dying genre. But then, how come I am still visiting bookstores at least once a month? I walk along the shelves and enjoy the changing patterns of colors, titles, people. The peripheral vision does a great job here; once in a while, books that I have never previously considered jump into my eyes—and give me a love-at-first-sight experience. Wandering inside a bookstore gives me both comfort and surprise, just like a great soccer match provides the audience with calculated miracles. I want serendipity; that’s why I still visit bookstores.

Amazon smartly suggests books I might like, based on my past browsing patterns. But list of ebooks refine, rather than broaden, my focus. They overwhelm me, but do not persuade me. In other words, they give me what I know I want, but not what I don’t know that I want (Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, is no Steve Jobs—yet). Bookstores with analog paper books are valuable precisely because of the reason we started to avoid them: most of the books are not what expect to read. Herein lies the way for bookstores to survive.

But there is another nasty reality. Even if I meet a fantastic book, I have no incentive to neither buy it in the bookstore nor read it in the paper format. Paper books are likely more expensive than ebooks, and paper takes space. The most logical action for me is to check the Kindle version (or even “Google” version) on the spot, and click it, using the bookstore as an agent—without a commission. The paper version comes into play only when a Kindle version is unavailable. Therefore, bookstores are attractive as galleries but not as shopping centers.

Here is my suggestion: bookstores can survive by making money out of the agent role. Probably they can increase the number of sofas and provide free wi-fi to encourage customers to browse as many books as they want. When a customer want to buy a paper version, no problem. And if he wants to buy the e-book version, he can do it from the bookstore’s wi-fi network, which automatically sends commission to the bookstore. I don’t see any problem here; bookstores have been functioning as commission-based agents from their beginning. Even when we buy paper books, most of our payment goes to the publisher anyhow. Why not apply the same model for ebooks? The only differences are our mindset and the lack of physical distribution.

We need bookstores. I need them. The question is, can they evolve fast enough?