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How To Reinvent Brick and Mortar Bookstores And Finally Realize The Third Place

I have an idea how an enterprising, book-loving entrepreneur can reinvent brick and mortar bookstores and revitalize the concept of the elusive “third place.” While I’m sure I’m not the first person to conceive of this idea in some form, today I was inspired to finally share it.

Why I Want To See Someone Reinvent Brick and Mortar Bookstores

I spent half my life working in media retail. More than half of that time, I was a bookseller. In particular, I worked at two bookstores that aimed to establish the bookstore as a viable Third Place: that anchor of community life separate and distinct from, but informed by, the workplace and the home.

laughing ray bradbury
Reinvent brick and mortar bookstores and make Ray Bradbury happy!

Fahrenheit 451, the landmark Laguna Beach, California bookstore / coffeehouse P.D. James called her “perfect idea of a bookstore” and the only bookstore to carry that name with the blessing of Ray Bradbury himself, was the kind of place where movie stars, recording artists, tourists, and “townies” browsed and conversed side by side.

Through the years, each of Fahrenheit’s owners actively encouraged the idea of the store as a cultural focal point by supporting local craftspeople and artists and hosting seminars, author events, and local music.

Despite unwavering support from the community, the store’s twenty five year run did not survive the devastating damage of an employee’s embezzlement scheme, and they closed their doors for good in 1994. I worked there from the grand opening of their expanded location in 1991 for about a year or so — a short, but formative time.

Borders Books and Music, as it will always be known to me despite the many adjustments of its name over the years, was a “big box” chain one wouldn’t ordinarily think existing in the same context as a scrappy indie bookstore like Fahrenheit 451. However, Borders began as an indie just three years after Fahrenheit 451 first opened its doors, and carried a very local-centric attitude well into the 1990s.

When I joined the company in September of 1995, each store had a great deal of autonomy and a mandate to serve their local community that was reflected in the stock and an active commitment to local events, authors, music, and art.

final day of borders store 86By the turn of the century, Borders Group, Inc. had bowed to stockholder pressure and became increasingly homogeneous, centralized, and faceless. Several missed opportunities and a revolving door of four CEOs in its last five years eventually brought the chain, once considered the envy of the industry, to liquidation.

I worked at Borders for ten years and one month. I held many positions, but the one I performed longer than any other was the best job in bookselling: trainer.

With the demise of Borders, all we’re really left with in the United States is Barnes and Noble… and for a very long time, their primary mission has been to sell memberships, not books, and a commitment to the establishment of a Third Place doesn’t seem to be on the minds of anyone in charge there.

Despite the ubiquity of Amazon.com and the easy, once-removed connection provided by online social networks, I think there’s still plenty of room for a brick and mortar bookstore that is also a Third Place.

I’d love to see it happen. Heck, I’d love to help see it happen, under the right circumstances and with the right people.

Here’s how I see it.

How To Reinvent Brick and Mortar Bookstores

The key to realizing a viable reinvention of the bookstore and establishment of a Third Place is to swap the priorities. Rather than a bookstore where people can also drink coffee, eat dessert, and hang out for hours, approach it the other way.

Build a place where people are encouraged to eat and drink and hang out for hours… and buy any book that strikes their fancy.

“So, what,” I hear you say, “a ‘coffehouse / bookstore’ instead of a ‘bookstore / coffeehouse?’ That’s the big idea?”

Not A Coffeehouse

I’m not talking about a coffeehouse model. Coffeehouses aren’t truly designed to be effective, encouraging Third Places. The seating is (intentionally) uncomfortable. The tables are small.

I’m talking about a floor plan designed to keep people there for hours… and get them talking with each other; engaging with one another.

Seating is a big part of this. Rather than small tables with uncomfortable chairs and big comfy chairs with inadequate tables (the standard coffeehouse arrangement), how about this:

  • Individual “workstation” setups—small tables with one or two chairs—are available, but not too many.
  • There are lots of large round tables surrounded by sensible, comfortable chairs. The tables have outlets and charging stations, so you can work and hang out forever if you want, but you’ll do it next to, and across from, other people doing the same.
  • Booths exist, as do small conference rooms, for a more intimate engagement with the people you bring, or the people you meet. Book clubs and other meet ups can happen here, too.
  • There’s a bar. Whether or not the place serves alcohol is an open question, but darn it, there’s a bar. Get to know your barista and the person on the next stool.
  • A large sound-proof space, with a sound system, small stage, and rows of seating, exists off of the main room. While spontaneous conversations happen elsewhere, this is the place where seminars, concerts, small plays, readings, and comedians and performance artists do their stuff. This happen without disturbing folks who didn’t necessarily plan on being entertained when they showed up… and, of course, the entertaining can happen in a setting where the coffee machine isn’t interrupting every five minutes.

One more thing about seating: at the reinvented bookstore, you don’t seat yourself. You’re seated according to the size of your party, your reason for being there, and the availability of seating. The host who knows their store and clientele very well (something that won’t take long at the hyper-local reinvented bookstore of the twenty-first century) will even seat people according to temper and tastes. It’s all about encouraging and even engineering community—a Third Place by design, driven by intent.

What About The Books?

Instead of a huge inventory of product constantly being churned by the wasteful, outdated twentieth century returns cycle, there will be very, very few books in the reinvented bookstore. A few cases of bestsellers, local interest titles, and works by local authors, plus perennial classics and whatever’s on the local schools’ required reading lists. A magazine rack, maybe. That’s it.

However, at the reinvented bookstore, nearly any book in print can be found and ordered through the in-store network and a couple of kiosks… and nearly any book in print, once purchased, will be printed on-site, made to order, through the use of Espresso Book Machines.

What’s to stop people from ordering books on their phones and tablets from Amazon or wherever? Not a thing… but prominent signage (and on-screen reminders when you log in to the wifi) encourages people to either use the in-store system or, if they must use Amazon or Barnes and Noble.com, to please use the store’s affiliate links.

The beauty of the affiliate link, of course, is that the customer might continue to make money for the store through Amazon purchases, even after they’ve gone home!

How To Reinvent the Brick and Mortar Bookstore Business Model

So… how does the reinvented bookstore make money?

Naturally, there’s money to be made in the sales of drinks and food (excellent markup!), sales of books and periodicals, and affiliate sales.

With nearly no returns and very few up-front orders of books and periodicals, the only investment in that area is in supplies and maintenance of the Espresso Book Machines and attendant technology.

And affiliate sales are, of course, pretty much entirely profit.

But the real money to be made lies in the value of the reinvented bookstore as an active, engaged, user-friendly Third Place.

Engagement As A Service Worth Paying For

How often have you been to a big-box bookstore for a book club, a Toastmasters meeting, a children’s story time, maybe a writer’s critique group, or to see a guy with an acoustic guitar? When you were there, how often did you spend any money in the bookstore? The attached Starbucks doesn’t count.

Probably not very often… and yet, that’s exactly why big box bookstores open a portion of their sales floor to free events. It’s also why there are fewer and fewer of these events at big box bookstores in general… and fewer and fewer big box bookstores, come to think of it!

The reinvented bookstore of the twenty-first century will understand that a really great place to engage with the community is worth paying for. Not much, mind you, and it will always be free to just come in and hang out in the big common area… but if you’re there for a seminar, a singer-songwriter, a comedian, or you want to use a little room for your meetup, karaoke party, or what have you… you will be expected to pay.

And here’s an idea: the venue shares the take with the musician, seminar teacher, host of the meetup, etc. The reinvented bookstore of the future will never ask a musician to pay for “exposure.” The bookstore of the future understands that the relationship between venue and artist must be treated as symbiotic.

Put a price on an event—even a buck to listen to the guitar guy do his sappy original music and seventies covers—and suddenly it’s an event, not just something happening, kinda half-assed, over in a corner.

The reinvented bookstore of the future puts a value on the educational, social, and entertainment to be found in the local community, and makes money from that commodity.

Can Your See It?

Does my vision for how to reinvent brick and mortar bookstores make sense to you? Can you see the place I’ve described? Would you hang out there, give it your custom, if such a place existed in your community? Would you make it your Third Place?

I think it makes sense, and I think the business model is viable. Of course, I haven’t run any real numbers, but it certainly feels like it makes sense, especially in the right markets. Someone with an MBA tell me I’m right. Or tell me I’m wrong.

Explain why, in either case… and use small words, please. Share your thoughts on how to reinvent brick and mortar bookstores in the comments section, and please, do share this post with your social networks… let’s keep this idea on the fire until someone cooks something with it!

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If you liked what you’ve read… share it with the folks you think would like it, too!


  • Patrícia Paixão

    Dear Matthew,

    I found this post while searching for inspiration and research material. I’m from Portugal and I’m dreaming and planning of developing a bookshop cafe in my hometown. Although this concept is more or less present in big cities like Lisbon and Porto, it’s far from being something like you described. I can’t describe how excited I was when I read this!

    I’m very connected to arts/community/sustainability and more recently I’ve been collaborating with the Transition movement. However, what I see… is that the arts and culture are still a missing piece, when for me the could be so much more part of this communal experience.

    Thank you once again, and if my project comes to life, you are surely invited to come to Portugal and witness it (:

    All the best,


    • A

      I’m so pleased my post offered some inspiration for you, Patrícia! I hope you run with it!

      As it turns out, in my own town of Long Beach, California, someone’s attempting something similar to what we’re talking about. I’m excited to be able to actually visit a “book bar.”

  • Angela Gannon

    Hi Matt!
    I loved this article. I think the brick and mortar bookstore is slowly making a comeback, at least here in Nashville. Since I moved here almost two years ago, a famous local author, Anne Lamott, opened up Parnassus Books and Grimey’s New and Pre-loved Music opened a second location that includes a coffeehouse and bookstore. All stores seem to be thriving. I think it all comes down to location and if the city loves to support local business, like they do here in Nashville.

    • A
      Matthew Selznick

      Thanks, Angela! I’ve heard of Lamott’s store; I’m glad to hear it’s succeeding.

      I think it all comes down to location and if the city loves to support local business

      Agreed… and one more thing: educating the public. I think it’s okay for a business to do a little training with the community, especially if the business follows a (semi) new model like what I’ve described.

  • While I’m not so sure about the hostess idea (I like the idea of seating myself, but I’m an independent sort who gets really shy and antisocial around salespeople), the rest of your ideas have great potential.

    The few times I’ve been to a bookstore of late were to meet with a friend. We’d meet at the coffeeshop, where we were jammed together with a bunch of other people where I was afraid I’d knock over someone’s coffee or knock my hot tea on my laptop, and the seating was horrible. The chairs were uncomfortable and the tables were so small you couldn’t fit two laptops on the surface.

    I love the Espresso Book Machine idea. This has promise on so many levels. It would eliminate much of the returns issues with traditional publishers, allowing bookstores to limit their purchases to what they realistically think they can sell, and would allow them to carry Indie authors who currently are stuck selling through CreateSpace because they just don’t get enough paper book sales to justify Lightning Source’s costs when they have no chance of ever getting in most book stores.

    And maybe I overlooked this idea and you actually mentioned it, but imagine going up to the counter where the Espresso Machine is and them telling YOU what’s good based upon your own interests, maybe what you rated on goodreads or past purchases or a questionnaire. Make it a full service store, not just making the books available but guiding you to what you might enjoy most, not just electronically but with a real live person who might even have similar interests to make dynamic suggestions.

    And it is a little disheartening. I go to B&N every once in a while, but don’t know that I ever see any events there, and it’s so hard to find a decent seat, even outside the coffee shop. But I will say, at least, that I’ve gone to the bookstore just to meet someone and walked out with a book or two more times than I can count.

    • A
      Matthew Selznick

      them telling YOU what’s good based upon your own interests, maybe what you rated on goodreads or past purchases or a questionnaire. Make it a full service store, not just making the books available but guiding you to what you might enjoy most, not just electronically but with a real live person who might even have similar interests to make dynamic suggestions.

      Excellent suggestion. Yes.

      But I will say, at least, that I’ve gone to the bookstore just to meet someone and walked out with a book or two more times than I can count.

      Good for you! It’s kind of the consumer’s obligation, I think: if you’re going to use a space, you should be a patron. It’s just polite.

      Thanks for the feedback, Danielle!

  • Apollos Crow

    I was with you up to the espresso machine part. Because really the biggest thing physical bookstores have going for them is discoverability – people like to browse. They like to let their fingers do the shopping. Having only a select few books on display, with the majority being ordered through a machine? No thanks.

    Also, the supposed waste issue of paper books is extremely over-hyped.

    But for the most part I like what you’re saying, particularly admission for in-store events (something many larger stores already do, even for author signings. It works because your receipt is also a voucher towards a book purchase. Everyone wins). Of course the issue then is, not every guitar-slinger or slam-poet is worth an admission price, but they can still draw people into the place. I think the solution is just more events in general, of varying attraction and price (including free, for local talent who just want an outlet), but in a somewhat segregated performance space that doesn’t disturb those who aren’t interested.

    • A
      Matthew Selznick

      Hi Apollos! Thanks for stopping by!

      Regarding on-hand stock, browsability, and the points in your first two paragraphs:

      The average Barnes and Noble carries about 100,000 unique titles across an average 25,000 square foot store. That’s an average of four unique titles — opportunities for discovery, if you will — per square foot. Most of those 100,000 titles are stocked in quantities of one or two.

      The thing is, most of the individual titles sold are either front-of-store bestsellers, perennial titles like reference works, or seasonal titles like holiday books and those on school “required reading” lists.

      The stuff that sells — ie, the things most people actually purchase in a physical bookstore — is a fraction of the stock on hand.

      That’s why the “deep catalog” that makes up most of the 100,000 titles in an average superstore is scrutinized very carefully. Non-performers are marked for return in regular (monthly) pull lists. A pull list can have anywhere from several hundred to several thousand titles on it. Executing that pull list (finding the books, pulling them, packing them, and preparing them for shipment) is a daily activity that removes employees from focusing on helping customers and selling books. It’s a huge payroll expenditure that, while it reduces the ultimate bill a store owes to the publisher or distributor, does nothing to bring new sales in.

      Sure, people love to browse through the stacks of a brick and mortar bookstore… but many of those folks end up finding what they want and purchasing the item online. Why? A recent study suggest that nearly 60% of “showroomers” opted to buy online because of poor customer service. And 40% of those folks reported that they didn’t come into the store intending to buy online, but poor customer service drove them to do so.

      In my vision of the reinvented brick and mortar bookstore of the twenty first century, employees hours wouldn’t need to be spent on multiple touches (instances of handling / managing the stock of a specific item) on books that never sell or add to the bottom line. Those employee hours would be spent on customer service and education.

      When I first went to work at Borders in the Fall of 1995, this was driven into our heads:

      “Help the customer determine what they want, walk them to the section, find the book on the shelf, and put that book in their hands.”

      To facilitate that, the front-of-store information desk was always manned by at least two employees. During peak hours, satellite info kiosks were manned as well (but customers could help themselves if they liked.)

      The benefits to such an approach should be obvious from a customer service standpoint, but here are some other benefits to that approach:

      • Customers come to know booksellers, especially booksellers with expertise in specific subjects
      • It’s a natural opportunity for upselling by suggesting related titles — directed browsing, if you will, that satisfies a customer’s desire for discovery while putting them on the right track.
      • Once a bookseller takes the customer into the stacks puts a book in the customer’s hand, that customer is much less likely to leave without making a purchase.
      • The standard of one-on-one service inspires brand loyalty

      Go into a brick and mortar book superstore in the United States today and count the number of employees on the sales floor. Now determine how many of those employees are actually helping customers. It’s pitiful.

      Now imagine if the four or five employees responsible for handling inventory — shipping, receiving, stocking, and also pulling returns — could be reassigned to customer service. Would the percentage of browse-then-buy-online go down? The data suggests so.

      In my model of the reinvented brick and mortar bookstore that is also actively invested in establishing a Third Place for the community, browsing wouldn’t disappear. It might shift to digital browsing, but apart from the tactile element, all the same things would remain: looking inside the book, following suggestions for related titles down a fun rabbit hole of discovery, and so on. The only difference would be that you might have to wait ten minutes for the book you want to be printed and put in your hand.

      What about stuff that might not be available through the on-site print-on-demand system? Heck, encourage the customer to special order it through the store or even use the store’s Amazon affiliate link to go ahead and “showroom” that title.

      I know from over a decade of experience as a bookseller that the thing customers remember about their experience at a store isn’t how many books were there… it’s how the bookseller helped that customer get what they wanted, no matter what, and no matter how. That drives loyalty, and loyalty drives long-term repeat sales.

      Also, the supposed waste issue of paper books is extremely over-hyped.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “supposed” or “extremely over-hyped,” since those aren’t specific criticisms. But I’ve already explained how the returns cycle is harmful to the brick and mortar bookstore. Here’s why it’s harmful to authors:

      When a bookstore orders a new title, they aren’t afraid to order it in “new release” quantities because they know they can return whatever they don’t sell. In four to six weeks, when eight copies out of ten haven’t sold, the bookstore returns six and keeps two on hand. In six months, if those two copies are still sitting on the shelf, they return one. From the initial order of ten, they reduce the number they actually pay for to three.

      The trouble is, the publisher bases print runs of future books by that author on those returns percentages. If they do a print run of 10,000 on the first book and see that bookstores returned 7,000, the print run on the author’s next book will probably be less than 7,000. A smaller print run means fewer opportunities to place the book in bookstores, fewer opportunities for visibility, and fewer opportunities for sales. It’s a self-defeating cycle, and it’s the reason many, many authors never earn anything more than their initial advance and have to keep their day jobs.

      I think the solution is just more events in general, of varying attraction and price (including free, for local talent who just want an outlet), but in a somewhat segregated performance space that doesn’t disturb those who aren’t interested.

      Indeed, an emphasis on the local community, including its creative class, is central to the success of the model as I’ve described it. However, I wouldn’t recommend asking any performer to do their thing without compensation, even if it’s a share of the door.

      Thanks for the comment, Apollos — you obviously gave me a lot to think about, and raised some great points.

  • You should also have a mission state that if your story is successful and you franchise it that you’ll never, ever go public. It seems that places that go public, like Borders, always end up failing.

    I see a few minor problems that will need to be addressed. The first, for me anyway, is the round table. I’m as social as the next guy but if I go to your store to write I need to do it in solitude. Sorry, that’s just me, can’t even really listen to anything other than Classical music when I write so listening to other people taking could be a major distraction. Maybe a soundproof booth section?

    The same goes for events. Again, if I’m writing I don’t want to hear someone playing a song or doing a stand-up routine while I’m trying to figure out how the good guy is going to defeat the bad guy in my story. Again, sound proof booths?

    I really like the link idea to Amazon the best. It makes total sense to offer that service since you and Amazon will get a cut of the sale. Heck, if you franchise I can see some sort of special deal made with Amazon that could help you both out.

    • A
      Matthew Selznick

      Hey there, Tim — thanks for the feedback!

      I think your misgivings are addressed in the post.

      I’m as social as the next guy but if I go to your store to write I need to do it in solitude. Sorry, that’s just me, can’t even really listen to anything other than Classical music when I write so listening to other people taking could be a major distraction. Maybe a soundproof booth section?

      I mentioned that there would be individual workstations — small tables with one or two chairs — so you don’t have to sit at the larger, more social tables if you don’t want to. Want to be even more separated from the rest of the folks in the common room? Booths or small conference rooms are available, but the conference rooms (designed for small meetups and clubs) will cost you.

      I tried to be clear that events like music or comedy would take place in a dedicated space off the main room. This is for the benefit of folks who, like you, don’t want to be distracted by a performer… and also for the performer who doesn’t want to perform for a crowd that’s ignoring them or treating them as if they were a slightly more annoying version of the piped in music. I meant to imply that the performance space would be isolated from the common room, and that would include sonic isolation as well. Does that work?

      I have to point out what feels like a little bit of contradiction on your part, though.

      You wrote, “if I go to your store to write I need to do it in solitude.” Thing is, if you go to a public place to write, you’re not going to do it in solitude. Don’t want to listen to the overhead music (if there is any)? Folks could always do what they do in bookstores and coffeehouses today: put in the ol’ earbuds… or go to a public library, perhaps.

      The thing about the Third Place, I think, is that it serves and enriches the community, not the individual. At my reinvented twenty first century bookstore, spaces are made available for people who don’t want community interaction. They’ll have to pay to use them, though.

      Your suggestion that a deal with Amazon could be made reminded me that Amazon is already planning to experiment with brick and mortar locations. Perhaps the retail section of the store I’ve described in the post would be licensed from Amazon itself..?

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