How To Save Bookstores

by guest blogger Maya Rodale, writer of historical tales of true love and adventure.

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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11 Responses to How To Save Bookstores

  1. Emily October 27, 2011 at 9:03 am #

    If bookstores started serving wine, I’d never buy a book online again! Great list!

  2. Maya October 27, 2011 at 9:33 am #

    Haha, Emily! Thank you 🙂

  3. renee October 27, 2011 at 10:09 am #

    One of my favorite ‘vacations’ is nothing more than this: buy a book, a scone and a cup of coffee and sit in a bookstore for hours until I finish it. Restores my sanity on a regular basis.

  4. Heather Roche October 27, 2011 at 10:27 am #

    My favorite bookstore was ‘Port in a Storm’, Somesville, Maine. While alcohol wasn’t served, they had hot coffee and tea, a huge comfy couch that looked out over Somes Sound, and 2 cats wandering around(and would sit on your lap) – plus, a diverse and wonderful selection of books. I would spend hours exploring their selections(and spend way more money than I should have…)Sadly, it’s out of business. I still frequent independent bookstores, but I find the experience is more like a big box book retailer. You are correct, it’s the experience of the store, the atmosphere, that makes GOOD independent bookstores a destination.

  5. Amy Valentini October 27, 2011 at 10:39 am #

    Maya, you’ve inspired me to yet another good rant although this one was pretty good, if I may compliment you. I love bookstores and when they closed the only one remotely near me, I wanted to cry. I still forget it’s not there and just this month, I thought, “I’ll stop by Border’s and see what new book is out for Dad’s birthday.” Then I remembered it wasn’t there … sadly, I went movie shopping at Walmart instead. I’ve got a list of books a mile long that I want and somehow ordering online isn’t the same, I like to experience them before I buy … I know I’ll probably end up doing so but haven’t yet quit the idea of actually getting to a bookstore even if I have to travel almost an hour to do so. [sigh] See what I mean about a rant coming on … besides the declining state of bookstores and the ones that treat Romance as a second class citizen … it’s coming. LOL!! It will have to wait until next week but I think it will come. Starting discussions of Regency soon and you know I’m going to feature some of my fave authors. ; )

  6. DJ in PA October 27, 2011 at 11:21 am #

    Great list but you’ll not hear me harsh too much on indie bookstores as most of them are barely surviving in ICU on life support these days. Sad. My fav (shameless plug) is Mid Coast Bookstore in Damariscotta, Maine. Great people who know their merch and people! But the problem with chain bookstores is the same problem with other chain retailers. They have ZERO clue who their customer is, what she needs or what motivates her and it would appear they really don’t care either–because they don’t ask the right questions and don’t listen to feedback–apparently they don’t stress such concepts in business school. Its all about how to drive synergies, find win-win solutions, launching new platforms of opportunity; leveraging something while extracting value from something else. Why create something new when you can just leverage the old and still make your bonus? Who needs good old fashioned horse sense when you can buy a load of horse**** and even get a fancy piece of paper proclaiming you’ve mastered same to hang on your wall? One won’t find employment with solid horse sense as one will with the fancy paper. My favorite clothing store of well over 25 years totally redesigned their sizing and now I can’t fit anything there. I hadn’t bought a pair of petite pants anywhere else in all of that time b/c none fit so well. Then they got too clever by half with their sizing and styling and immediately lost me and a lot of others too. Then their profitability began a deep slide. SO they pored millions on store redesign and changed the vibe even more trying to be like every other store, losing even more of their uniqueness. Why shop there if they are exactly like every other clothing store? More slide. Now they are reintroducing the old fit and more of the older look but now I feel like a jilted lover and even the 60% Customer Appree sale isn’t luring me back to give them a second chance. They ruined who and what they’ve been for decades. Moral of the story: Sorry Charlie, I’ve found a new lover who has my pants.

  7. JR Hendricks October 27, 2011 at 6:11 pm #

    If every person bemoaning the demise of their favorite indie bookstore (or indie anything) had actually patronized indie bookstores, indie bookstores would not be going the way of the dodo bird. The sad truth is that for every reader who values the “bookstore experience,” there are about thirty thousand others who don’t give a flying rat’s butt as long as they can get it cheap. All the indies I know are doing most of the things you suggest and then some. Except, perhaps, serving wine, which requires a liquor license.
    And if I may add my own rant…I’m not sure I see the logic of shopping for movies at Wal-Mart, the well known scourge of anything independent, as a substitute for buying a book anywhere.

  8. maria (farm country kitchen) October 27, 2011 at 6:55 pm #

    Great comments you all! I remember when indie bookstores first started to decline and people said no one would ever buy books again…and then Barnes and Nobles and Borders became huge superstores…so I think the moral of the story is that the next thing will be something so different and creative that it hasn’t been invented yet…that sounds like a fun challenge to me!

    (and thank you, dearest Maya, for blogging for your old Mum!)

  9. Amy Valentini October 28, 2011 at 12:29 am #

    @JR Hendricks … I totally agree with what you said about most people not caring about the decline of any bookstores not just the indies but as much as I love any bookstore, I have to admit that if a bookstore doesn’t have the selections I’m looking for then I’m not going to frequent them either. As for adding your own rant – “I’m not sure I see the logic of shopping for movies at Wal-Mart, the well known scourge of anything independent, as a substitute for buying a book anywhere.” I stated “sadly, I went movie shopping at Walmart instead.” It wasn’t where I wanted to end up shopping for a 91 yr old man who loves to read as much as I do but when time is short and the nearest bookstore of any kind is almost an hour away, Walmart becomes a last resort … small town, limited shopping and by far, the most limited place on the planet to shop for a decent book. You might not like Walmart but for some of us, it’s Walmart or nothing. As for a movie being a poor substitute for a book, well, as a former English teacher I can tell you that it’s still a means of entertainment and surprisingly enough can expand the mind and a way of thinking if it’s the right film. But thank you for your opinion. And as they say at Wally World – Have a nice day. : )

  10. Amy Valentini October 28, 2011 at 12:31 am #

    Maria, thank you for allowing us to visit and have this lively discussion. You have a lovely daughter of whom I’m sure you are quite proud as she is of you. : )

  11. Bonnie March 2, 2012 at 7:45 am #

    I hope the lovely bookstore in Olympia is still surviving. It had old comfy chairs, a pot of tea and plenty of books, not just new ones. They had a vast variety of used books. I could sell back my extra books, does anyone ever have enough bookshelf room!!! (They even had an old back room stuffed with old National Geographics organized by year so that when we traveled somewhere unknown I could hunt for articles about that part of the world.) I loved searching for old books on my favorite subject and was able to collect many I treasure.

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