Large bookstores fill an important niche in our cities. They’re some of the best places for people to hang out, kill time and meet friends. But with Borders gone and Barnes and Noble stores rapidly disappearing, how will that niche be filled in the future?
To be sure, there are many other types of these “third places” in cities, ranging from coffee houses to public plazas, but bookstores’ particular combination of a climate controlled indoor space, with clean bathrooms, plenty of comfy seats, a pleasant cafe and an endless supply of reading material, has proven very popular.
Unfortunately, retail locations large enough for that kind of bookstore are expensive, and it doesn’t help Barnes and Noble’s bottom line if most of its customers are sitting around not buying anything. So as popular as big bookstores are, they’re going out of business.
With a few exceptions, local non-chain bookstores generally aren’t set up to fill this niche either, because they don’t usually have very many places where it’s comfortable to sit for long periods of time. Those easy chairs and wide open spaces in Barnes and Noble make a big difference.
Libraries could be a perfect replacement. After all, the whole point of libraries is to provide a place for people to read for free. Unlike bookstores, it doesn’t matter to libraries if customers only want to hang out.
But libraries will need to evolve to fill this role. The branch libraries in most cities have been losing to bookstores because they don’t have the right amenities. Libraries will need to be bigger, with more of the magazines and coffee table books that people enjoy flipping through in bookstores. Libraries will need cafes, and a more fun, less stodgy character overall.
Some of the new central libraries in big cities are taking on this role, but it won’t help too much to only have one big nice library in each metropolitan area. If libraries can do this, it will be the smaller neighborhood branches that make most of the difference. They’re the ones that will have to change the most, and that could reap the most benefit.
Dan Malouff is an Arlington County transportation planner who blogs independently at BeyondDC.com. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.