Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Library Bookstore Model (General Thoughts).

Pococurante's Library in Voltaire's Candide or Optimism

Library And The Bookstore

Many libraries are taking bookstores as a model for improvement in libraries. This is often an incredible mistake. Some of the bookstores which are being used as a model like Barnes and Nobles or Borders only sell new books. At one point Barnes and Noble had a sale annex in Manhattan. I think it closed in 2005. It offered discounted and used books. In a way, this demonstrates that Barnes and Noble does not do well selling used books in a competitive market like Manhattan.

In April of 2008, the Astor Place Barnes and Noble in Manhattan, New York, several blocks away from Strand Books closed. I think it may have been due to pricing competition with the Strand. A major advantage which Strand books had over Barnes and Noble was depth of sales. They sell both new and used books. In a similar manner, another one of the independent book warehouse stores, Powell's in Oregon, interfiles all of its books, used, new, paperback, and hardcover. This makes the way books are shelved similar to public libraries. Metro New York library consortium offered a tour of the Strand bookstore for librarians recently.

You may think what does a bookstore have to do with a library. Many libraries look to bookstores as a model of customer service. There was even a book written, Creating The Customer Driven Library Building on the Bookstore Model by Jeannette Woodward. It is an American Library Association Edition, c2005. This makes the ideas fairly new and cutting edge in the library world. Bookstores generally do a better job displaying new titles than libraries. Bookstores tend to have more table space for new books as well as better disply furniture.

In my daily experience, I constantly hear the word Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other new bookstores as places to look for materials to select for libraries. Because Powells and The Strand have more depth in their collection, they can often offer categories of books on their websites which are simply not as easy to find on other bookstore sites on the web. For example, The Strand has sections on their website for Drug Abuse, Labor Union studies, Linguistics, Motorcycles, and some subjects which are simply not available as categories in Amazon or Barnes and Nobles. Strand has a much deeper taxonomy. This is also true of with categories like Pacific Northwest and Deaf Studies.

Libraries are more specialized institutions than new chain bookstores. In chain bookstores ordering is done from a central warehouse, and processes are run from a standardized franchise manual. They can hire based on training people from a manual. Subject knowledge is not as necessary, because the worker for the most part is not making selections on what to buy, the central warehouse is.

This is different for places like the Strand or Powell's which sell used books. Used books require specialist subject knowledge of books. There are far more older books than new ones, and most of them are not salable items. The person selecting used books has to be able to discard most of the books brought in to find the ones which are salable. Because of this, they are paid more than in a new bookstore. The used book buyer is also most of the time more experienced and skilled. Strand Books is a union shop. Barnes and Noble is not a union shop and pays much lower wages. It is supposed to be quite harsh to be apprenticed to the Strand initially.

I am going to make a slight change here. Many booksellers subscribe to the American Booksellers Association Bookbuyers Handbook. It is a fee service as part of membership.

Even with these differences, places like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, The Strand, and are for profit institutions. With increasing competition, some used bookstores are becoming nonprofit agencies. For example, Nkiru Books in Brooklyn, the first African American bookstore in Brooklyn, became The Nkiru Center for Education and Culture. It could not survive as a for profit bookstore and changed into a nonprofit center. It supports itself by giving lectures, providing literacy programs and doing workshops.

Also, some bookstores start out as nonprofit centers, they take donations of books for a cause. A good example of this is Housing Works Used Book Cafe. They get lots of donations of books from publishers all over Manhattan. Their cause is to support homeless people with Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome. I really do like their selection of books.
Both Nkiru Center for Education and Culture and Housing Works Used Book Cafe would be considered social enterprises whose purpose is to create self-sustaining socially useful enterprises that pay for themselves.

Because both of these places are examples of nonprofit institutions, in a way they are much closer to being like libraries. Sometimes, libraries want to get ideas from bookstores. They are after all in the business of books.

Many libraries run small book sales. They do not generate a lot of profit for the most part in my experience. They are an example of a goodwill gesture to the community in my thinking. We run a larger Friends of the Library booksale every several months. This is done by the friends because it is considered a conflict of interest for librarians to be selling books. A retired librarian runs the sale. Most of the proceeds go to programming.

Instead of turning to Barnes and Noble or Amazon, it would be better for libraries to look at organizations that are more independent like Strand Books, Powell's, or The Nkiru Center For Education and Culture, and Housing Works Used Book Cafe. These are examples of successful bookstores with unique characteristics.

At one point, I considered becoming a bookstore owner, but I learned an important truth. A bookstore owner of a decent bookstore does not make as much money as a senior librarian and must work much harder than most librarians. Becoming a bookstore owner is a labor of love. So is becoming a comic bookstore owner. There is no degree in bookstores like library science. The main credential is a savvy business sense and a love of books. However, much can be learned from joining the American Booksellers Association.

There is a course for starting bookstores done by the American Booksellers Association in association with Paz and Associates. It goes into the details of how to run a bookstore. This is an example of a sample five day intensive course.

Also, I watched the small science fiction and mystery bookstores fold in Manhattan. They simply could not compete with the larger chain stores even if the bookstores had specialties. This is a sad story all across the United States. It is very difficult to stay open as a small independent bookstore Forbidden Planet is the only science fiction bookstore left in Manhattan and it mostly sells comic books, manga, and dvd; very little science fiction.

After most of the science fiction bookstores folded, I had a lot of material which I had collected over time. I would price books at a couple of the stores, mainly old paperbacks. I also attended shows, signings, and readings. I ended up selling off most of my science fiction books. Many of them were signed editions from people like Octavia Butler, Neil Gaiman, and others. I spent a few dollars on setting up an ABE (Advanced Book Exchange) storefront and an Ebay storefront years ago when I was first getting married. I used most of the proceeds to help pay for my wedding.

Once again, I found out that selling books through a small electronic storefront would be a brutal experience with lots of competition and constant legwork. There are absolutely no barriers to becoming a small bookstore today. You can spend a few dollars and set up a site on ABE very easily. There are over 13,500 stores listed on the site.

I looked at this and thought there must be a way to combine bookselling, librarianship, and publishing into something else. I even took the Introduction to Publishing course at NYU (New York University). It was an interesting experience. I am still considering taking an intensive workshop from the American Booksellers Association on opening a small bookstore. The details will be available in May 2009 from Book Expo America. Book Expo America as part of their program runs the course for new booksellers.

I know that I really don't want to open a small bookstore, but I do want to learn more about the publishing business. This is true of many librarians in 2008, 1800 librarians attended Book Expo America, the trade show for the American Booksellers Association.

Because you asked earlier, you wanted to know my background if any in collection development or ordering. For a while I was in the history/biography and religion department of the central Brooklyn Public Library. I did extensive ordering for history, biography, and non-western religions. I also headed the paperback ordering committee for the Brooklyn Public library for a year, and worked with several different ordering committees at Brooklyn Public Library.
Right now, I am doing ordering for social science, business management, job information center, graphic novels, science fiction, and law books. I also previously made extensive suggestions for the reference collection before I was given the general responsibilities for pieces of the circulating collection. The old head of collection development at Brooklyn always said I should be working for a large internet company.

I really don't want to open a small bookstore, I want to create some kind of internet business based on books and information. I even applied to Contentville before it folded. It was supposed to be a content supersite, but they forget to negotiate properly with the writers they were taking articles from.
I have not applied to any of the large online bookstores. I feel like I am searching for something a little bit different to do with books and information. This is one of the reasons I am blogging about books.

I am watching Shelfari and Librarything which are social networking sites for books.

One of the reasons I am so fascinated with collection development is that it bridges the gap between bookstores and libraries. I like talking books and I like selecting books. I really enjoyed going to Book Expo America, New York Comic Con, and more recently New York Anime Festival because of the publishers.

Many libraries like Queens are completely focusing on circulation and letting go of the majority of their older materials. They are becoming like office boxes with lots of clean new material. What Queens does not offer is prestige or research institutions. Their collection is heavily merchandised. In a way, it reminds me of a big box bookstore. With loss of older material comes less of need for as much skilled staff. There is a lot of money coming in from the state, but not private donations. Queens has the highest circulation of any library in the United States.

In contrast, New York Public Library keeps much of its older charms. It maintains a much deeper collection than Queens library does. They also use this deeper collection to create an environment focused on prestige and research. They may not collect as much money from the state, but they collect more money from private institutions. A lot of New York Public's collection is quite old. Maintaining research institutions means they have a lot of highly skilled people with unique talents. It could not be otherwise with places like The Humanities and Social Sciences Research Library. If we wanted to compare it to a bookstore, it would be like Powell's in a way one of the most prestigious and unique institutions of its kind.

I know this is an odd comparison. Part of what I am writing is for some of the staff to read about where I work. They know I am writing this blog. We are in a transitionary stage where the board of directors would like to change the library we are in working in to something different. I am really not sure what that vision is, but I am not exactly comfortable with it. I would much rather that where I am working does not become like a big box sterile bookstore. It has quite a bit of charm and should maintain some of the unique collections it has.

I could compare the place where I am working to a ramshackle castle in need of repair with leaky pieces here and there and rather remarkable attributes; a frescoed rotunda which houses art exhibits and a very extensive local history collection. The building seems to be at odds with itself. It could be compared to one of those old New England bookstores where everything is not quite right, the owner lives upstairs, and everything is a clutter of the old and the new. The cash register, electronics, and website are new, but the shelves are messy, the lighting needs to be redone, and the building needs a new stage for readings and signings. This changed recently.

I might as well update this. We have a new director, this year and all the lighting is put in properly. The roof leaks are fixed, we have working airconditioning, and we even have new carpeting. Yesterday, I went out and did some block cleanup around the library with community members, so the physical plant has been improved. It is starting to improve considerably.

I also received a lateral transfer to being a collection development librarian from being at reference. I am working with one other librarian in the collection development department. I have had a chance to start cleaning up the shelving, sorting through the mending, and cleaning up the technical process storage area. I am working on updating the collection. There is a tremendous amount to do. Every single day I have some new things happening.

We have a whole bunch of new displays put in. I handle a glass case for displaying books and a big octagonal book display where we put current events titles. The tiered octagonal display is the same kind you would see in a bookstore. We are also putting in slat walls to display new books. I went through a catalog with one of my colleagues and we ordered accessories to display books on the slat walls. Slat walls are used in both libraries and bookstores for displays. It is a convergence of ideas. One of my colleagues went to Barnes and Noble for a session called Market Your Library Like A Bookstore about doing bookstore style displays and marketing.

Things have changed considerably again, I am no longer in charge of everything. I am still the law librarian, but we now have a new librarian who is shadowing me a bit to teach her how to handle the business collection, and I am training someone to take over the Job Information Center. I am still ordering graphic novels though, I like graphic novels.

Please excuse me for a moment. I check back now and then to see who is looking at my blog. I find it rather interesting that some library students have read this piece and it is quietly being sent around. I find it rather interesting. I made a few minor updates to make it easier to read. If you would like to leave comments on sections you would like to see expanded please do so.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Just read your wonderful post. Very comprehensive and addresses MANY of the things happening here north of the border. I'm in a system that is "transitioning" and looking to set itself up like a bookstore. I would say that there is nothing wrong with looking like a bookstore or taking the inventive and great things that bookstores do (e.g. displays, marketing authors/illustrators/local literary talen, some targeted programming for book lovers, marketing certain resources and services). However, what has happened is the bookstore, for profit, corporate attitude that has overwhelmed the staff here at my branch. The collection has been gutted (in favor of expanding bestsellers, video games, DVDs and Blu-rays, and E-resources), the displays and posted documents standardized and sterilized, the attempt to de-professionalize the staff, and a massive push for programs, programs, programs....

I thought I was the only one who had a problem with this. But apparently, this is a discussion that has been taking place for quite some time (e.g. your 2008 post). I am saddened and frustrated by the turn we are now taking and the eventual loss of the value of the library as being inherently valuable as opposed to being just another business that could easily be dismissed if the profit is no longer being generated.

But anyways, great post and hope things have been good to you since you last posted this.....