I came across an interesting article from the Publisher’s Weekly twitter feed on independent bookstores many weeks ago. Obviously a hot topic for the past couple of years (and now adding to that the role of bookstores in general). Where I lived growing up, there were not too many independent bookstores that I knew of. There were some niche stores in neighborhoods (including one mystery bookstore I remember with a chalk outline out front), but I didn’t necessarily read much in that category, so didn’t visit often.
However, it’s appropriate that this article came shortly after my first visit to Capitol Hill Books. Capitol Hill Books is an institution in DC. I’ve definitely heard about it in my years here, and if I have not visited, it’s simply because I have spent very little time in Eastern Market (yes, I know people love it but to get there I either need to hike or take the metro, and on my weekends I tend to spend time in closer neighborhoods). But…after one visit to the bookstore, I know that another resolution in 2012 is going to have to be to get over to Eastern Market much more often.
I ended up buying some out of print Simone de Beauvoir books, but the out of print books were not all that I loved about the store. I loved the notes that the owner had placed everywhere, and the articles that were taped throughout the store to the relevant shelves, like A Farewell to Macho taped up on the Hemingway shelf (although let me just note, I’m definitely a Hemingway girl; I wasn’t always, but have become one over the years).
And more than that, it’s the interaction between the customer (or should I say instead, the reader) and the owner. My friend was looking for a book, I might say it was perhaps slightly obscure for this part of the world, and at first he thought he sold the one copy he had. However, he did find it and, after getting the copy for her, recommended another book about the “bad guys,” if my friend was getting a book about the “good guys.” She wasn’t sure about getting another book since she came only for the one book, but he insisted. He told her it was on him, provided she come back after the first of the year with a report.
Can an online retailer do that? Can they interact with the customer to the point of giving a book because it was that strongly recommended? Probably not. There are great things about online retailers of course (I know because I buy a lot of books online), but there are also huge benefits from brick and mortar stores. How many fantastic books have I bought just by browsing the shelves looking for nothing in particular?
I know that we’ll definitely go back. After all, my friend has a report to give.