I've got an idea.
What if independent brick-and-mortar bookstores charged an entry fee -- say, a dollar -- and used the proceeds to enable them to level the playing field with online retailers in terms of pricing?
What if independent music and record stores did the same thing?
What if every retailer that sells something that could be had for less on the Internet did it too?
While browsing at The Strand last night, and I found a newly published book I wanted to read. It was marked 10 percent off the retail price of $29.95. Engaging in a common, if somewhat undignified, modern ritual, I pulled out my smartphone and checked to see what it would cost to buy it online at Amazon. I happen to despise Amazon but, times being what they are, I wanted to see what my options were.
Amazon lists the book, brand new, for $16.45.
And so ensued the ethical debate: support The Strand and pay a whopping $10 more for the book, or save the $10 and order the same book online, further hastening the imminent demise of great bookstores like the very one I was standing in?
It seems like a no-win situation. As much as I love The Strand and all it stands for, that's a huge margin of difference in price ... and that's only one book. Let's say I bought five or six books (not uncommon for me -- The Strand is a dangerous place), and let's say the same price differential applied, on average. Using this calculation, I could spend $135.00 at The Strand, or I could spend $67.50 for the same books online. Do the math.
So, am I (are you? are we all?) expected to subsidize the small, independent little guy simply because we know it's the proper thing to do? I'm on board with this in principle, and perhaps if one of my songs got played on Grey's Anatomy I would, without question. But, like most of the 99 percent, I'm mindful of my finances. Paying a third more for exactly the same product seems, well, unsustainable. This is not news. It's why bookstores and record shops and other Old Media outlets are disappearing faster than you can say "landline."
I want The Strand to have my money. I really do. I'm willing to give them a little more than I'd spend online. Just because. I think that they deserve for the service they offer me by having a physical store to browse in. That's absolutely worth something to me.
So, here's my idea. Monetize what is now a free service. Let Old Media stores charge admission. A buck. Wouldn't you pay a buck to browse in The Strand for as long as you like? I would. For a buck, you have access to their entire inventory. You can pick the books up, look at them, feel them in your hand, read a page or two. You can talk to the knowledgeable staff, ask their opinion, shoot the breeze. For a buck, you can be physically surrounded by the greatest words ever composed from the greatest minds from all corners of the world. And the best part? You're not obligated to buy anything while you're in there. But if you DO, it will be priced competitively with online retailers, because we all agreed to pay a buck for the privilege.
Wouldn't this be a great way to give those suckers (Amazon, et al.) some pause, even a run for their money?
I don't know the economics, so this may be a naive idea. How many people walk into The Strand every day? A thousand? Two thousand? Would every one of those people contributing a buck provide enough economic cushion to the retailer to allow for quasi-online prices? And what about the little guy with the little shop in the little town in the country, who gets a dozen customers in per day? That owner probably won't be able to compete. But maybe the economics in the little town in the country are different?
All I know is -- I love bookstores. The physical ones. And record stores (where they still exist). I want them to stick around. I always want to be able to go and browse in them, and I'm willing to pay a premium to do it. But an extra 30 percent is asking a lot. Something has to change about that calculus, and soon, I would think.
Give a dollar to get in to The Strand? Absolutely. All day.
Follow Howard Fishman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/howardfishman