The Psychology of the Physical Bookstore Experience
Can a unique psychological feeling be the savior of the bookstore?
Posted November 24, 2020 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
Without actually going there, imagine what’s at the other end of this URL: relentless.com. What kind of website do you think this is? If they’re a company site, what do they sell?
If you were to type in the URL it would take you to Amazon.
Relentless was Jeff Bezos’ original name. As legend has it, a close friend of his convinced him that the name might alienate customers, and so he changed it. He did, however, keep the URL and to this day, if you go to relentless.com, it will route you to Amazon.
But if you were to walk into an independent bookstore almost anywhere in the world, relentless would probably be one of the last adjectives that would come to mind. Instead, the bookstore experience is about savoring the love of books and ideas. More recently, and in reaction to Amazon's relentless rise, certain bookstores have gone even further by creatively curating the bookstore ethos. They’ve crafted an experience for the consumer, designed to foster a specific feeling and impression.
As an example, consider Morioka Shoten in Tokyo. The place typifies a love of books. Or should we say, the love for a book. Singular. Morioka Shoten sells a single book at a time, on a weekly, rotating basis. For that week, everything in the story is dedicated just to that book, and that book alone. They even curate their small, minimalist space to fit the theme of the book, and the author often visits and interacts with shoppers. Owner Yoshiyuki Morioka felt strongly that a single book would offer a deeper understanding and closer relationship with the reader as well as the essential pleasure of reading.
Book lovers will fawn at an approach like this, which puts the love of books front and center. But they’ll also probably note that such experiential approaches may not lend themselves so well to a pandemic. Will these approaches, and independent bookstores, be able to survive?
To understand where small, independent bookstores may be going, we have to look back. And of course, the history of modern bookstores can’t be told without starting with Amazon.
The Evolution of the Amazon Bookstore and Decline of Independent Bookstores
Bezos always envisioned Amazon to be The Everything Store. And of all the casualties along this relentless mission, none may be more emblematic of its economic domination than the physical bookstore. Books were never intended to be the end goal, but a stepping stone.
Books were the perfect start. Bookstores are constrained by physical shelf space, and so can only offer a small sliver at a time. But an online seller can have an unlimited inventory. According to New Yorker writer George Packer, this also gave Bezos a way of tracking the habits of “affluent, educated shoppers,” which he could then leverage for The Everything Store.
Books are also a great choice because all the necessary information about it (e.g. summary, author information, reviews) can be digitized for the online experience. Unlike clothes or furniture (which Amazon would later innervate), an entirely informed purchase can be made using this information; there’s no added benefit from getting to interact or “try out” a book in a physical store. And of course, with the advent of the Kindle, books themselves became Amazon’s proprietary digital products.
For the physical bookstore, the rise of Amazon was nothing short of a catastrophe. Borders books shuttered its doors in 2011. Barnes and Noble, the largest book retailer in America, went through a series of bankruptcies, refinancings, and ownership changes in response to Amazon.
The impact on small, independent chains was also devastating. Two decades ago, there were about 4,000 independent bookstores in the United States. By 2009, that number was down to 1,600.
However, in the years since rock bottom, independent bookstores have risen back from the ashes, reporting 49% growth, from 1,651 in 2009 to 2,470 in 2018 at a time when the trajectory of larger chains have gone in the other direction. How can that be?
The Psychology of The Physical Bookstore
For all of its incredible conveniences and low prices, there is an aspect of the book which can’t be captured and scaled in the Amazon model. And that is the actual feeling of buying a book. It’s more than just the raw utility of a book; it's a psychological state.
Bookstore enthusiasts will be instantly familiar with this feeling. “Cozy, warm, vibes” comes part of the way there. It’s been said that the English language lacks the right adjective to describe it. The Danes might do it better, with their word “hygge,” which roughly translates to the feeling of being cozy, like being curled up with a good book on a rainy day.
Experiential approaches, either strategically or intuitively, place this feeling at the core of the customer experience. And at the beginning of the Amazon takeover, many physical bookstores weren’t optimized for this. At the one end of the spectrum, you have amazing experiential bookstores like Morioki. At the other extreme, you have a relatively stale in-person experience of a big chain retailer like Borders Books.
As an industry, we can think of this in evolutionary terms: Amazon was the ultimate bottleneck force. It destroyed every bookseller who blandly sold books. Those that survived then, may have been selling more than that. And those that have arisen have necessarily needed to focus beyond the book itself.
Amazon may have inspired a new generation of creative, experientially-oriented bookstores. So while the arrival of Amazon was in many ways a destructive disruptor, it also forced the field of physical booksellers to reshape themselves in interesting, compelling, and experiential ways.
The Psychology of Bookstores and the Future of the Physical Bookstore
Perhaps no one in the book business has navigated the Amazon era better than James Daunt, founder of the UK’s Daunt Books. He’s a natural for what the Amazon extinction has left behind: a pure, unadulterated love of books and the bookstore experience. So much so that he gave up his stable, high-paying finance job to pursue his love of books as a business. In 1991, he opened up his first Daunt Books in London, and has since expanded to eight in total. As other bookstores of all sizes and shapes have fallen by the wayside, he has found success.
Daunt was behind one of the few bookstore chain successes of the Amazon era: Waterstones Books. And he did this by not treating them like a chain at all. Daunt has done this by breaking the traditional rules of bookselling and the traditional rules of branding itself. He has doubled down on deliberate inconsistency in the book-buying experience as a key driver for consumer behavior.
He remarks to The Guardian, “I think bookshops should have personality. If you go to a pharmacy and buy shampoo then you want to see it in the same place. So every Boots is the same and that makes sense. But with books, it doesn’t.”
And in some cases, actually jettisoning the brand itself. As the CEO of UK’s Waterstone Books, he opened up several without the Waterstones title at all, and let individual bookstore owners run the show as they pleased. “We decided that as they were very small bookshops in very small towns, it was barmy to call them Waterstones.”
North of the border at Indigo Books, “the bookstore peruse” is implemented in another way—as the central draw for a curated, lifestyle store. Here, the stores are a mix of books and items like throw blankets, scented candles, inspirational wall art, and Mason Jars.
Imagine cozying up on a rainy day to sink into a good book—the store provides both the book and all the components to create this vibe. In this way, Indigo has used a similar strategy to Amazon: using the book as a wedge to sell a range of other products. Front and center are their signature “reading socks,” plush toe socks which epitomize the tactile aspect of the experience of being lost in a good book.
The bookstores that have survived, and thrived, have gone beyond the book. If you had to distill their product down, it would be this: an experience which exudes a love of books.
Whether, and how, small bookstores will survive through the pandemic is still uncertain. From a business standpoint, the pandemic must have seemed like a cruel joke. The "love of books" experience was their key differentiator that allowed them to survive (and in some cases thrive) during the Amazon era. And with COVID-19, it quickly became the one thing they couldn’t do.
But if the last 20 years of upheaval has taught us anything, it's this: People love the bookstore experience. And already, creative bookstores have moved to creative ways of delivering this: from author readings, to virtual bookstore tours, to offering a socially distanced book browsing experience outdoors. And with more people turning to reading while at home, bookstores that have been allowed to open have seen a surge in traffic.
They’ve been counted out before, and have proven to be resilient. It’s carried the industry through tremendous upheaval and has given them a fighting chance in the grips of a pandemic.
One could even describe this affection with Bezos’ own language: relentless.
This post also appears on the consumer behavior blog Popneuro.
Alter, A. (May 2019) How a Canadian Chain is Reinventing Bookselling, SFGate
Daunt Books, Company Website: https://dauntbooks.co.uk/, last updated June, 2019
Harrell, S. (July, 2020) Despite Coronavirus, Florida Bookstores Find New Ways to Thrive, NBC News
Packer, G. (2014). Cheap Words, New Yorker Magazine
Raffaelli, R. (2020) Reinventing Retail: The Novel Resurgence of Independent Bookstores
Takram Blog (2015) Morioka Shoten: VI design for an award-winning bookstore of “a Single Room with a Single Book”, 2015
Tolentino, Jia. Trick Mirror (p. 185). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.