There are two things that a bookstore can never have enough of and I’m going to shock you by telling you that one of them is not books. The two vital elements are time and space. Let’s start with space. Just as space and time are related according to Einstein, time will certainly pop up as we move along. Some quick math, let’s design a model bookstore of say 20k square foot of selling space (a real bookstore needs more space to have room to receive and store books, spots for employees and the coffee shop for that latte you’ve been dreaming of since I mentioned the word “bookstore”). At an off-hand guess, let’s bet that one way or another we can fit 350 displays of 4 foot units, with six shelves each in unit and still leave room to maneuver about. So that’s about 8400 feet to shelve books and with a book on average being about 1 inch thick, we can stick 100,800 books in our store – if we only have one copy of each title. That’s pretty good, but there are a few problems.
Every Monday night in the bookstore is like Christmas Eve. The new books are unpacked with care and brought out to be discovered by the bibliophiles the following morning when the doors are thrown open. On average there are any where from 20-30 new titles or new formats of books that arrive. Books have a life cycle typically starting with hardcovers, leading to large paperback or trade papers to the final version mass markets, the small paperbacks with each kind generally taking 9-12 months to arrive. So we’re not just shelving one title anymore, but up to two versions of the same title. Let’s add to the fun that you just don’t get one copy of a new book, instead its more like 3 to 30 or more depending on whether or not it’s the new Stephen King or James Patterson. Those take space to display and to make matters more interesting that old saw about judging a book by its cover suddenly comes into play. Covers intrigue customers, and it makes it easier for them to identify the author’s name by the larger print. Bookstores are also paid advertising dollars by publishers to ensure you get a good long look at the artwork. Suddenly, we have a shelving problem, if we want to show the customers the covers we can usually only fit around 7 books across on a shelf. Our 288 books per shelving unit becomes 42 just like that. So if 50 of our units show off new books (let’s face it most of the sales are new books), now our title number drops to lower than 84,600 that the math gives us since we have multiple formats as well. Greater than 16% of our space just disappeared.
But here comes the real sticking point, everyone wants new books. People come in looking for the classics for gifts, summer reading and more, however what sells more than any other are the new books. So with an average of 25-30 new books every week, each year a bookstore acquires 1300 or more new titles every year. It really is a never-ending cycle based around the demand for new material. Realistically, that estimate of 25 titles is probably low. So, something must go in order to make room for the new books. So we sacrifice our depth of titles and the breadth of subjects we can sell in order to satisfy the need for new titles. It’s a business game to decide what to keep, what to bring in and what to send back. It’s the reason your favorite book isn’t always on the shelf. But you wanted that book right now and that brings us to time.
We used to communicate via mail, then by phone and now by the Internet, skype and texts in an immediate fashion. Our social media connections are instantaneous and we can connect around the globe in real time. Therefore people assume that they should be able to have their needs gratified instantaneously including having whatever book they want right now. Not only have we increased the speed at which we can discover the title we’re looking for via search engines and recommendation lists, but also the depths of titles as well. Google shows you everything from what is easily available to that original Guttenberg Bible and it removes the sense of scarcity or difficulty of acquisition since you found the item with a single click. Bookstores strive to narrow down the time of transit constantly, even offering same day delivery in some large cities. But until there is a machine in the store to print the books as the customer demands them, the nature of travel across the country extends the amount of time if the title desired is on the opposite coast. All of which is why the concept of the ebook is so appealing. Instantaneous books whenever you want them. But then you don’t need a bookstore anymore and that’s sidestepping our discussion. On the whole it becomes – we want our books yesterday and whatever book we can imagine.
So just like Borges infamous library, a bookstore in that fabulous traveling contraption belonging to a certain Timelord is the complete answer. In the Tardis there is the ability to generate whatever space is necessary since the machine’s interior measurements are dimensionally transcendent. So when the new releases roll in, there’s always another shelf for them. In fact you can have a room just for every coming Tuesday, so as long as you know when the book was published you can find it easily. No need to ever send those books back. However, the Tardis is a little like ordering a book from a website. I did leave the website off the discussion until now because this is the closest that bookstores can come to having a Tardis. Our 86k title catalog suddenly blossoms to millions and can include connections to other sellers as well making available used and hard to find items. Books come from far and near to your hands – however, it takes time. Even in the Tardis going from one room to the next takes time. In fact there is no magic doorway that will open and take you directly to where you need to be. Often the Doctor and companions are running down that same style of staircase several times and even passing the pool at least once before arriving at their destination. Similarly, unless it’s ebook, it takes time to get your book.
We’re finding new ways to transport books, new ways to read books and even new ways to write books every day. Also the amount of literature available to the consumer continues to grow. Self-publishing; small and micropresses and epubing all challenge the status quo of the traditional houses while the demand for the product ebbs and flows. Social media phenomena drive super-sellers like Harry Potter, the Hunger Games and 50 Shades of Grey. Bookstore consolidation and competition have allowed for the reintroduction of independents in many markets. But the ultimate truth is there are no absolute answers to bookselling, which is why we’d have to resort to a fictional device to make it work perfectly.