…present of public and academic libraries?
What got me thinking along these lines most recently was the recent Clay Shirky blog post,
Local Bookstores, Social Hubs, and Mutualization. It’s a pretty good post that puts a particular kind of physical retail into the context of current online retail and media shift realities.
In the first section of the post, Shirky basically outlines the trouble that physical bookstores are in, caught between the rock of the competition of online/big box store and the hard place of the coming media singularity.
Like record stores and video rental places, physical bookstores simply can’t compete for breadth of offering and, also like the social changes around music and moving images, the internet is strengthening rather than weakening the ability of niches and sub-cultures to see themselves reflected in long-form writing.
This sort of commitment to bookstores is a normative argument, an argument about how things ought to be. It is also an argument that might succeed, as long as it re-imagines what bookstores are for and how they are supported, rather than merely hoping that if enough nice people seem really concerned, the flow of time will reverse.
In the next section, he talks about the social aspects of good bookstores that the stores are currently unable to monetize. This is really the core of the piece — that physical space offers something that virtual space cannot and is therefore worth supporting and preserving.
The local bookstore creates all kinds of value for its community, whether its providing community bulletin boards, putting rocking chairs in the kids section, hosting book readings, or putting benches out in front of the store. Local writers, harried parents, couples on dates, all get value from a store’s existence as a inviting physical location, value separate from its existence as a transactional warehouse for books.
The store doesn’t get paid for this value. It gets paid for selling books. That ecosystem works — when it works — as long as the people sitting in those rocking chairs buy enough books, on average, to cover the added cost of having the chairs in the first place. The blows to that model have been coming for some time, from big box retailers stocking best sellers to online sales (especially second-hand sales) to the spread of ebooks to, now, price wars.
If the money from selling books falls below a certain threshold, the stores will cut back on something — hours, staff, rocking chairs — and their overall value will fall, meaning marginally fewer patrons and sales, threatening still more cutbacks. There may be a future in which they offer less value and make less money in some new and stable equilibrium, but beneath a certain threshold, the only remaining equilibrium is Everything Must Go. Given the margins, many local bookstores are near that threshold today.
All of this makes it clear what those bookstores will have to do if the profits or revenues of the core transaction fall too far: collect revenue for the side-effects.
The core idea is to appeal to that small subset of customers who think of bookstores as their “third place”, alongside home and work. These people care about the store’s existence in physical (and therefore social) space; the goal would be to generate enough revenue from them to make the difference between red and black ink, and to make the new bargain not just acceptable but desirable for all parties. A small collection of patron saints who helped keep a local bookstore open could be cheaply smothered in appreciation by the culture they help support.
Now comes the interesting part for our purposes — what should the owners of physical bookstores do about the problem and what role does the larger community play in that transformation.
Treating the old side-effects as the new core value would in many cases require non-profit status. This would push small stores who tried it towards the NPR model, with a mix of endowment, sponsorship, and donations, a choice that might be anathema to the current owners. However, the history of businesses that traffic in physical delivery of media has been grim these last few years. (This is the story of your local record store, RIP.)
Even when the current recession ends, it’s hard to imagine vibrant re-population of most of the empty commercial spaces, and it’s easy to imagine scenarios in which commercial districts suffer more: consolidation among pharmacy chains, an uptick in electronic banking, the end of our love affair with frozen yogurt, any of these could keep many street level spaces empty, whatever happens to the larger economy.
If commercial space does follow the warehouse-and-loft pattern, then we’ll need to find ways to re-purpose those spaces. Unlike lofts, however, street level living has never been a big draw, but turning those spaces into mixed commercial-and-communal use may offer a viable alternative.
All of which is to say that trying to save local bookstores from otherwise predictably fatal competition by turning some customers into members, patrons, or donors is an observably crazy idea. However, if the sober-minded alternative is waiting for the Justice Department to anoint the American Booksellers Association as a kind of OPEC for ink, even crazy ideas may be worth a try.
So, the idea is that bookstores are basically dead in the water, with competition and change on all sides. I largely agree with Shirky here, that most people will tend toward lower prices and greater convenience (ie. see Walmart & Amazon) and that this will influence a long term trend that will be difficult for physical retail outlets to combat. What he outlines is a classic case of the tragedy of the commons, where pursuing one aspect of self-interest actually harms a resource for the whole community, including of course, the set of people who began the cycle by acting in their own interest.
What I find curious is that much of what Shirky suggests as the future of bookstores is actually the past, the present and the future of libraries. Pretty well everything he suggests from cafes to hosting community events to providing relaxed social spaces are already what libraries do in their communities, whether those communities are towns and cities or academic institutions. Libraries already provide content (such as books, magazines/journals and music) to their communities at no direct cost to their patrons.
Most communities also have community centres which also provide a lot of the services that he’s talking about.
Public and academic libraries are mutualized resources — they literally belong to their communities already. If we as a society want to expand the realm of public spaces, to reclaim previously commercialized spaces and integrate them into the public sphere, there’s already a template in place for those public spaces. Building and investing in our libraries and community centres seems like a great place to start.
I’ve always thought that Shirky was one of the smartest and most sensible commentators out there so I find it unfortunate that he has such a library blindspot. It’s also unfortunate that he hasn’t really engaged in conversation about the post, either at the blog (where the post doesn’t allow comments although most others do) or on his Twitter account.
(A personal note here: I almost never shop online. I choose to live in a big city, so if I can buy something in person from a local business I do, even if it costs a bit more in time or money. I have an interest in the economic health of my local community, in the supply of a wide range of employment and the availability of a variety of goods and services.)