In Defense of Sitting in Bookstores

This Baltimore Sun item describes how the big box bookstores are no longer placing the nooks, crannies, and chairs that were once de rigueur a few decades ago. In the case of Borders, the chain has cut back their soft seating by 30%. The complaints are the usual ones: the homeless, necking lovers, people leaving trash behind, and other assorted riff-raff. (Of course, it’s not as if these prohibitive factors didn’t exist when the bookstores did provide more seating.)

Customers seem to be lounging in the bookstores anyway, sitting on the floor and sometimes not buying anything at all. But is this really so bad? One might argue that Starbucks’ tolerance for sitters who don’t purchase a cafe au lait, or anything at all really, may very well be one of the reasons why it’s impossible to wander around Manhattan without running into one of those monolithic green circles — sometimes with remarkable square footage. And there’s a considerable difference in profit margin between a $29.95 hardcover and a $2.95 cafe au lait. But you don’t see Starbucks cutting back on its soft seating.

All this reminds me of what Jane Jacobs had to say about people being naturally inclined to sit on steps and how these recurrent populist acts — wholly natural, of course — led to strange underclass labels. What’s to suggest that people naturally sitting in a bookstore won’t bring in long-term revenue over time? Can’t a bookstore learn a few things from coffeehouse culture and be a kind of community? If people are permitted to sit and congregate without being badgered by a humorless manager, they might meet a friend who, in turn, might purchase a few books. Further, book enthusiasts tend to be natural browsers, often pinpointing particular volumes for later purchase. Is not a certain amount of tolerance for the literary inclined a sound business proposition?

Sure, some of the sitters will be inveterate slobs. And you’ll need staff to clean up messes and restock books. But it’s a small price to pay for an amicable atmosphere. Maybe I simply have more faith in humankind than the iron-fisted Borders executives. But I’ve found that most people, barring a few assholes who try to make everyone’s lives miserable, are pretty polite and friendly. So why be discourteous and force them sit on the floor?

(via Galleycat)

[UPDATE: While I didn't have the time to dig up my copy of Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities and a few other New Urbanist books to quote for this post, Charlottesville Words thankfully drew a few comparisons between this seating imbroglio and Paco Underhill's Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping.]

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12 Comments

  1. Once again, Ed, I’m with you on this one — if the retail experts and my own bookstore experience are to be believed, being nice to customers is good business. Perhaps that’s why Apple is doing so well and Borders ain’t.

    Just for the record, though — there is a big profit margin difference between a cappuccino and a hardcover, but it’s in the coffee’s favor. From my days as a barista, I know that a $3.00 espresso costs the coffee shop about $0.03 cents worth of coffee — a markup of about 1000 percent. The average $30 hardcover book costs the bookstore about $15 to $18 — a markup of only 40 to 50 percent. It sounds weird, but this is why being a bookseller is not the way to get rich.

  2. I sell books for a living at an indie store, and being able to be nice to customers is one of the best things about the job. It’s also good for business. As for chairs, though, no dice. Maybe it’s a function of our highly urban neighborhood, but experience shows that comfortable seating gets used by the non-buying public and forces out those spending money.

    I’m all for providing a place for the impoverished flaneurs and inveterate loungers, mind you. These days it seems to be the library, and boy, do I feel for the librarians who’ve become social workers by default.

  3. I’m of two minds here-I use to work an indie bookstore where we didn’t provide seating(the most we had for people who legitmately needed to sit down was a padded bar stool) and we had plenty of folks willing to sit on the floor. Most were prefectly content to wander about the aisles,browsing and chatting with friends who stopped by.

    On the other hand,we also had our share of folks just looking for a place to crash and since the store was a small one,alot of them tended to block the aisles. Also had our share of teenagers getting frisky near the children’s section and I for one would rather they went elsewhere to canoodle. There’s a fine line between being open and accessible to the public and getting used as a public commodity. Booksellers are busy enough without having to clean up extra messes that can damage the books and deal with folks who treat the bookstore like it’s a hotel room.

  4. There are seats in Apple stores?

  5. People will park themselves on whatever horizontal surface is available. It’s the inevitable nexus of gravity and human nature. Even stores with an okay amount of seating have kids piled around the place. The Borders on Post St. in San Francisco has a manga section that regularly attracts a wall of children five or six feet thick. In another Borders (I’m sensing a pattern), again, with chairs and couches freely available, I ran into one young lady flat on her stomach in front a bookshelf, reading and happily and blocking foot traffic. And never mind the mountains of coffee cups left on the shelves.

    It’s unfortunate, but the general public does it’s thing in it’s own sloppy way; that’s the price retailers pay for getting to take our money in exchange for goods and services. It’s also unfortunate that the folks charged with cleaning up after us don’t get much of that money, but they do have to deal with all the crap.

    As someone once said: Where people go, garbage follows.

  6. I don’t claim to be typical of Borders/BN customers, but Mrs. B and I hang out regularly at big-box bookstores, and we drive miles out of our way to go to the ones that have better seating. We usually spend about $5-15 on food and drink, and although we only purchase books maybe once every 3 or 4 trips, when we do buy books we spend about $30-80. (And I should mention that we’re scrupulous about cleaning up after ourselves and not leaving unpurchased items all over the place.)

    I’d much rather buy books online, where I can usually get a huge discount (esp. if used), but am willing to pay full price occasionally for the convenience. But the main reason I think the chains ought to attract people like me is that the reasons I go to those stores in the first place are some of the few reasons for these stores to even exist. If I know exactly what book I want, I’ll go to Amazon or Powell’s. If I kind of know what I want but really need someone to help me find it, I’ll go to an indie bookstore (or would, if I lived in a city that actually had decent indie bookstores).

    But if I just want to go to someplace where I can look at a buttload of new books I had no idea even existed, so I can look at them and maybe buy them or maybe not, Borders/BN is my destination of choice. I can go there, get a ginormous stack of books and magazines, skim through them, and even if I buy only one or two things out of that stack, it’s still more money for them than if I just didn’t go there at all.

    I don’t know why the chain stores would want to snuff out one of the few advantages they have over online retailers, but if the ample-seating policy isn’t boosting sales, I guess you can’t argue with the numbers.

    One thing the article doesn’t mention is non-soft seating (meaning, tables and hard-backed chairs). Personally, I think this is the direction in which these stores should go. Something I’ve noticed is that “comfy chairs” tend to attract the customers who really just want to hang out and not buy anything (especially kids), whereas the people who sit at tables are either studying or working on their laptops (which means they’re buying coffee), or doing more serious browsing. Also, it’s not easy to fall asleep on those hard chairs.

    In any case, it will really suck, for me at least, if the bookstores do away with seating. When I lived in Madison, I went to the local Borders all the time, and came to recognize quite a few regulars. It was one of the few opportunities I had in my relatively secluded life to feel something like a “community” feeling. I can understand the perspective of the “anti-seating” indie bookstores, but I wonder if that view is a little short-sighted and unrealistically purist. As someone who lives in a strip-mall wasteland, I would like to see independent bookstores reinvent themselves as centers of cultural activity. Some of the people interviewed in that article seem almost resentful that customers don’t just come in, find their book, pay, and get out. But if that was all I wanted as a customer, why would I bother going to a store, when I can find/pay/leave much more efficiently at my computer?

  7. Odd. I’m a regular at most of the local bookstores in my area (I go to each at least once a week) and have never noticed any lay abouts. No one sitting in aisles, or lying out on sofas, or making out by the Shel Silverstein books. A few may sit on the stairs but it’s wide enough to accommodate a few sitters and foot traffic. I’ll have to ask the employees if they have a completely different experience.

    Now the public library…*shudder*.

  8. Oh and there’s no pile of coffee cups either even though the chain store has a Starbucks and the indie store is within walking distance of three coffee shops. People through them in the bins, strategically located around the store *shrugs*. I don’t wanna say it’s a Canadian thing….

  9. Imani says” “the public library…*shudder*.”

    As a librarian, I was always really proud and happy that the public library acted as a public space both for those who wanted to browse for books AND those who wanted to find somewhere warm to sleep. (Good management meant negotiating both sets of users, prioritising the former, but not demonsing or belittling the latter.) Not enough public spaces in the world — and not enough warmth (or kindness) either!

  10. Well I’m not interested in starting a petition to kick homeless people out but I also have little interest in the new ideas of libraries as a community centre/napping spot. To me a library is a clean, quiet, sunny place in which I can settle with my books and read in perfect silence, everyone shuffling around in reverence, libraries whispering to patrons. Thankfully I have access to university libraries that more or less provide that.

    Public libraries (my local library anyway) have turned into a free for all where people come to have meetings; hold lessons (really loudly! Beside my study carrel!); turn their carrels into a temporary abode complete with a bazillion grocery bags; everyone, including libraries, speak as though they were in a cafeteria; and teenagers play games and chat on computers all day.

    Now, since the computers and “community events” haven’t completely pushed the books down into the basement yet I’m more than happy to have my tax dollars support them. I just won’t be spending any time there if I can help it.

  11. Wow, thanks for the mention! It’s a great topic for discussion.

    On libraries: Here in Charlottesville, the libraries are tending in the direction Imani describes — the downtown branch in particular is a favorite with the homeless, but at least when I’ve been in there they haven’t been bothersome. Mostly they’re sleeping. Librarians should enforce basic civility but I agree with Mark that it’s important that publicly funded libraries remain truly public. Not to get all dramatic about it, but they are key battlegrounds for the retention of our imperiled first amendment rights.

    I do wish more of our local librarians would use their inside voices. And I wish our libraries would set up soundproof study rooms for tutoring sessions. I don’t want to listen to someone else’s algebra lesson while I’m browsing steamy memoirs.

    On bookstores: I’m with Rasputin on this one. If you’re in retail, you gotta deal with people, including their bad manners and neuroses. Suck it up. I will choose anonymous B&N with its comfy chairs and coffeeshop over a snooty independent any day. Not that all independents are snooty, not at all — but some (not in Charlottesville! Everyone’s nice here!) have made me feel like my desire to spend a little hard-earned cash with them is an imposition. I’ll take my money somewhere where I can take my time.

  12. Kayla Sonergoran July 5, 2012 at 5:39 pm

    I was at a B&N today and all the seating was taken up. Its bad enough that I hate the arrangement where many comfy seats face one another rather than spaced out for some half way privacy but to not find any seating period upset me enough that I decided against buying my book from B&N and instead went to Amazon where it was $6 cheaper.

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