Then a Barnes & Noble “superstore” came to town. It anchored a mini-mall with a large parking lot. The bookseller already had a cloudy reputation; I knew that its steep discounts on best-sellers were putting pressure on smaller bookstores near its locations. The retailer was then making its big expansion push. Soon after the opening, I drove over to check it out. Look, Starbucks coffee! A magazine rack filled with alien titles such as Zyzzyva, Utne Reader, and Foreign Affairs. A “Cultural Studies” section. An entire shelf full of Faulkner. Going to Barnes & Noble became a Saturday afternoon. It was as if a small liberal-arts college had been plunked down into a farm field.
A lot of my autodidactic education took place in the aisles of B&N. That Ward Churchill book I just quoted from was the very first book I bought there, in fact. As the exact sort of person who could happily browse all day but would go bankrupt purchasing at retail price, I’d happily pay for a membership in something like Virginia Postrel’s idea should that be implemented:
Instead of fighting showrooming, embrace it. Separate the discovery and atmospheric value of bookstores from the book-warehousing function. Make them smaller, with the inventory limited to curated examination copies — one copy per title. (Publishers should be willing to supply such copies free, just as they do for potential reviewers.) Charge for daily, monthly or annual memberships that entitle customers to hang out, browse the shelves, buy snacks and use the Wi-Fi. Give members an easy way to order books online, whether from a retail site or the publishers directly, without feeling guilty.