Bookshops are dead. If they're not dead they're certainly on life-support provided by people that could save everyone a heap of trouble if they just went online like everyone else.
In my view, that's pretty much the view of large parts of the mainstream media, especially the bits written by over-caffeinated young journalists who regard visiting a physical bookshop as being in the same ridiculous sentence as writing a paper cheque or sending someone a handwritten thank you note. It's called progress - get over it.
I have nothing against online bookshops. I use them myself when I want something. But one of life's great pleasures is finding things that you aren't looking for and didn't know that you actually needed.
The sense of discovery afforded by physical bookshops is aided and abetted by the nature of physical books themselves. This is something that I'm fairly sure no digital store or e-equivalence can touch. Slowly walking down a shelf loaded with real books is a very different experience to hurriedly scrawling down a screen looking at a series of thumbnail images.
In my experience it's often, counter-intuitively perhaps, faster to scan a physical shelf than to scrawl a digital page too, which possibly has something to do with peripheral vision mixed with the physical architecture of bookstores. This may change, especially with 360-degree viewing using virtual reality goggles, but don't count on it.
Moreover, the physical sensation of lifting a book from a shelf and cracking open its pages for the first time cannot possibly be matched by a click on a sterile button saying “More” (information about).
First there's the physical sensation of glimpsing a spine and pulling a book down from a shelf to reveal the cover. Then there's the weight of the book, which can indicate seriousness, although one should never judge a book by its gravitational pull anymore than what's on its cover - trust me I've been given a few shocking covers in my time. Then there's the feel and the sound of the pages and even the smell of the paper and ink. You can get much of this experience the moment you open a parcel expressly delivered by the mighty Amazon, although, somehow, the experience tends to be diluted or lost in the flow of other digital delights.
But that's enough about books. I want to talk about bookshops. Confusing the future of bookshops with the future of books is a rookie mistake. I made the mistake myself with public libraries until I suddenly realised it was what was inside the libraries that really mattered. This includes books, of course, but there were also people and people are conduits of history, knowledge and skills, which transfers into physical happenings and events. Good bookshops, like good public libraries, are where people that want to escape the frantic pace of modern life can go for some quiet contemplation. They are somewhere that people can go to escape the torrent of digital distraction too.
Bookshops and pubs, together with post offices and schools, are the four pillars upon which a local community is built and to my mind no fragile friendship built online can compete.
So where are bookshops not performing better financially? The answer, I suspect, has something to do with the fact that most of the people that run small bookshops aren't in it for the love of money. They are in it for the love of books - and, dare I suggest it, people. Money is merely an encumbrance that gets in the way of what bookshop owners really want, which is to talk to other people about their love of books. But lurking here, perhaps, is salvation. People that buy books, that is people that buy lots of books, like to talk about what they’'ve read and what they’re reading. Therefore there's a huge gap on the shelf, as it were, to physically connect customers with other customers.
Some bookshops do this already. The best bookshops tend to employ people that love reading and this can be expressed through staff reviews. So do book clubs. This rather begs the question of why local bookshops don't integrate themselves more, by offering not only books, but also spaces to discuss them.
London's Society Club takes this a stage further by hosting a bookshop within a bar (or is it the other way around?) where the cost of any books is deducted from the cost of club membership. I'm not sure if this might represent the future of libraries or the future of bookshops, but it's an excellent example of making the social nature of new media apply to physical spaces.
To some extent the lethargy found in some bookshops is generational too. Younger readers, untainted by the anti-social nature of new media are quite happy with bookshops the way they've always been. But this doesn't mean that bookshops shouldn't evolve. The kids-size front door at the Wild Rumpus bookstore in Minneapolis (USA) is a playful idea that immediately connects with any child curious about the likes of Alice in Wonderland.
Again, it's not just about the books but how they are displayed and what they are connected to, which makes one wonder why more children's bookshops aren't located within schools, leisure centres, supermarkets or even public libraries. If the customer isn't coming to the bookshop, take the bookshop to the customer. Similarly, with adults, why not place more bookshops in pubs or even prisons?
I have no idea what's going to happen to bookshops in the future. They will undoubtedly change. The idea of buying books from real people in real spaces is likely to fall in and out of fashion much like most other things. And if enough people predict that physical bookshops will die out you can be sure that they'll suddenly burst into life like the hand from the grave in the closing sequence of the movie "Carrie".
Why am I sure about this? Because I'm a contrarian. I believe that if enough people predict that something will happen it generally won't. I have no idea why this might be the case, but it's possibly due to a mixture of primitive psychology and history. In short, it's always been about people. All books are technology. Humans are the consumers of most technology and humans are a sensual species that likes to interact with physical objects and other human beings in physical environments. Get this right and you won't go far wrong.
Richard Watson is the author of Digital Vs. Human: How We’ll Live, Love & Think in the Future (Scribe).