The floors, of course, would be wood, creaking occasionally under our stride to give the place an old-world feel, and the books would be shelved, not in sterile portable racks but in floor-to-ceiling glory The layout would be labyrinthine, with little hideaways jammed into every corner. Overstuffed chairs and sofas would dot the place and imbue it with a sense of leisure. It might provide its customers with seating autochthonous to the given disciplines-a pew in religion, old-fashioned desks in the kids’ section, a shrink’s couch in psychology. Provocative posters proclaiming quotes from famous writers would hang on the walls, and, of course, four-foot-high cardboard cutouts of Garfield or Snoopy would be noticeably absent. And, not least of all, it would have a bathroom-after all, we’ll be spending the day there. (Raabe, 2001:78-79)
Tom Raabe’s description of a fantasy bookstore captures the passion which the idea of a bookstore inspires in many bibliophiles; though book stores may only rarely manifest themselves in this creaking, labyrinthine fashion they remain a place apart, one of the spaces that Ray Oldenburg describes as a “third place” which serves the community by being inclusive and local, acting to unite neighborhoods while allowing outsiders access into the communities that they serve (Oldenburg, 1999: xvii-xviii). Until recently these stores depended on business models that dated back to beyond the beginnings of print. Their place within the publishing workflow, distributing the products of publishing companies to readers, or locating books of interest for customers from the vast collection of books that have been produced on every conceivable subject. Book dealers provided value to publishers by knowing the specifics of their markets, and they provided value to customers by knowing where to find books and which books were of interest in particular topics. The store fronts themselves provided a necessary meeting place between books and the customers.
These models have began shifting in the latter half of the twentieth century due such factors as the popularity of paperbacks, the rise of the mall chains and later superstores, and currently due to the phenomenal impact of digital technology. Computers have provided three fundamental changes to the book industry: they have altered the customers access to books and information about books; they have provided an alternative forum for cultural discussion of books; and they have changed the medium of the book from codex to digital text. These factors have meant the introduction of new competitors, both on-line mega-retailers and a plethora of budget and part-time retailers. It has raised problems of copyright and ownership and forced a reconsideration of what a book consists of. New channels for access and distribution mean a rethinking of the value of the open shop, a retail location that often provides less range and convenience than it’s web counterparts.
The purpose of this research initiative is to document and understand the impact these changes have had on the retail book trade, particularly on independent new and second-hand bookstores. A series face-to-face and telephone interviews will be conducted with independent book dealers (focusing initially mainly on New England) as well as conducting an on-line survey of independent booksellers. The research will explore their perception of the the impact these technologies have had on their business environment (political, economic, social and technological) and record their reactions to those changes, especially how they have evolved their business models to engage with the new technology.
The results of the research will be published on an open access model and made available publicly.