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?
[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.]