How To Save Bookstores

10/27/2011 10:35 am ET | Updated Dec 27, 2011
  • Maria Rodale CEO and Chairman of Rodale, Inc. and book author

Lately, I've been craving the experience of browsing in bookstores--strolling the aisles, judging books by their covers, finding unexpected titles--and wondering why I haven't done it in a while. But come to think of it, there are three big reasons why:

#1 No Romance Sections
I stopped going to indie bookstores because they didn't carry romance (the snobs). I wanted my serious nonfiction with a side of sweet, and didn't want to go to two different stores to get it. Let's pause to mourn the loss of a massively lucrative customer--the female book buyer.

But once there at the Big Book Retailer, things were only marginally better. For some reason, the romance section is always, without fail, located in what I call "the Mad Woman in the Attic" section of the store. You know, the top floor, all the way in the back, in the darkest corner, with the signage facing the wall. It's as if they don't want it to be found.

Given that the romance genre blows every category out of the water in terms of sales, audience, everything... And given that romance readers buy MORE books than anyone, across multiple categories... WHY would you give the romance section such shameful, hard-to-get placement?

The message this sends to romance readers is that they are unwanted customers who should be ashamed of their reading material. Whatever. We'll just go online and order ebooks in massive quantities.

#2 No Places to Sit
OK, so imagine this: You've got an armful a books, a coffee, and a giant handbag. You're trying to read the first page to see if you want the book, and it's a juggling act to do so. If you've ever visited the Mad Woman in the Attic/Romance Novel section, you know that it's always PACKED with people sitting on the floor, hanging out flipping through books. I once saw a woman breastfeeding there.

Reading is not a stand-up activity, generally. So, give your customers some dignity. Don't make them sit on the floor. Put in some comfy chairs and let a potential buyer sit down and really experience that first page of the book. It'll be much better if they're comfortable. Yes, some a**hole is going to sit there for five hours reading a book for free. But the rest of us won't--we'll just think this is a welcoming place to visit. Give us this little kindness and we'll probably repay it with a purchase.

On another note: Clean restrooms for all are a must. And a shopping cart or basket wouldn't hurt, either.

#3 Too Little of Too Much
If you happen to locate the romance section of your bookstore, you'll find a very limited selection. Bookstores do have the problem of finite shelf space, which makes it impossible to compete with online sellers and ebooks. So, to diversify they stock other stuff. But this compounds the problem: There are fewer and fewer titles to browse, which reduces foot traffic, which probably reduces sales.

So here's a scandalous suggestion: Don't try to stock everything. Excel at, say, new releases, and make it easy to order backlists online from your store. Also, own your bookstore-ness. Be a destination. What's missing from online shopping? Atmosphere. Other people. Events....

Here are a few tips for bookstore owners:

  1. Give space to writing groups and book clubs for meetings. That's right, invite book buyers into your store! Help them combine tasks. Coordinate with these groups to sell specific titles.
  2. Serve alcohol. Unless you're a celebrity, author signings and readings can be brutal. But if you dim the lights and serve wine, it becomes much more fun. Witness the success of the Lady Jane's Salon reading series.
  3. Provide childcare. They offer that at my local supermarket, so why can't they do that at bookstores? This way, moms and dads can sit down and read that first page in silence, and experience that glorious moment of becoming immersed in the book with our feet up and no distractions.
Because here's the thing: It's not just the book we're buying, but also the experience of reading and the culture around writing and reading. That's where the e-retailers struggle to compete with the brick-and-mortar stores. So that is what you should be selling: not just books, but the experience of the bookstore.

Do you still go to bookstores? How do you think the experience could be improved?


Maya Rodale is the author of numerous historical romance novels. She lives in New York City with a rogue of her own and their dog, Penelope. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, or at

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