In October of 2008, as the financial world was crumbling, my wife and I bought a bookstore. This might strike some as slightly crazier than buying up the world's supply of phone booths or carbon paper, and at the worst possible time at that. But it wasn't insanity that made us take the plunge. It was our confidence that the physical book will continue as a medium for long-form text (I will return to this point in another post); that local bookstores are central to the life of their communities; and that technological developments are, in fact, shifting the economic advantage back to the local bookstore. I'll focus on this last point for now.
The first thing you have to understand is that the book industry, as an industry, is a little nutty. There are multiple cycles of shipping and warehousing. There is overproduction and destruction of excess stock. The remaindered book that we sell in our store's basement was shipped to us by the publisher, returned by us to the publisher, shipped by the publisher to a remainder supplier, and shipped back to our store. That's a whole lot of shipping for an item that will eventually sell for $6.
But technology can sometimes counteract lunacy and create a new competitive landscape. On September 29, we installed an Espresso Book Machine, which prints books in our store and has access to millions of titles, including the public domain works scanned by Google. In February, we implemented same-day delivery by bicycle. With these two pieces of technology, one very new, the other very old, we can hope to fulfill orders faster than Amazon and we can envision having an inventory whose breadth rivals theirs. Plus, as all that crazy shipping and destroying and warehousing disappear, we'll have a cost advantage, too.
This is still pretty rudimentary; there's a long way to go. But I can envision the time when our bookstore will be able to deliver any book, ever written, in any format on the same day -- in the store or to the doorstep. The things that make independent bookstores great will still be there. Our buyers will continue to place quality titles on our shelves and our customers will continue to enjoy browsing, aided by booksellers who love books. We'll just be adding about 10 million titles to our inventory and we'll deliver those books faster than Amazon's armada of planes and trucks.
This model of local production and distribution is clearly more efficient and environmentally friendly. Maybe that's why Amazon is pushing plastic leptonic books. If the physical book survives, the model of centralized production and long-haul distribution is obsolete. The corporate book hawkers are doomed and they know it -- unless they can convince you that the physical book is the dinosaur and not they.