Gabor proposes a radical way to keep bookstores in business:
Get rid of the physical books and CDs. Only sell goods with 90% margins: Lattes and greeting cards. Rent smaller spaces but build them with beautiful architecture and interior design, comfortable couches, display advertising for the latest digital content, and beautiful, high-resolution e-readers that will let users browse any book in the world, and headphones to listen to any song on the planet. Invite local authors for frequent readings that will let them interact with the audience and the audience interact with them. Staff the store with fewer, but more knowledgeable staff who can recommend books and music, and help people use the fancy electronics.
It sounds good, but here's my question: Is he describing a bookstore or a really nice cyber-cafe? The problem that a typical bookstore solves—and that the Internet (or a cyber-cafe) does not solve—is discovery. That is, how do you find a book that you don't know you want?
Google is very good for finding things you want, but it's quite bad at finding things you don't know about. Social media companies like Twitter and Facebook have made some headway here by taking the networks that naturally build among friend groups and putting them online. And Apple is trying to do something similar with its new social network, Ping.
But I think there's a lot of opportunity for other start-ups to help with the problem of discovery, and, until they do, there isn't going to be a good way to help consumers discover new books except by putting them in a room full of dead trees. By removing the books from the bookstore, you get rid of the bookstore's core competency. You've got a Starbucks, but with worse coffee.
That's the case today, but it probably won't be true in ten years. So I'd love to hear about some start-ups—besides the big ones mentioned above—that are attempting to solve the discovery problem. What are some of your favorites?
(N.B. This month's Inc. has a Q&A I did with Twitter's Biz Stone that touches on this issue. And, for another story of Silicon Valley's attempts to save bookstores, check out Bo Burlingham's series onKepler's.)
Last updated: Sep 7, 2010
Senior contributing writer MAX CHAFKIN has profiled companies such as Yelp, Zappos, Twitter,
Threadless, and Tesla for the magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. @chafkin