Selling books. Or, actually, coffee.

Not long ago, The Secret Agent mentioned that [insert gender-neutral possessive pronoun] literary agency had some books on the New York Times Best-Seller List that weren’t making it into stores. Then, last week, Laila Lalami referred to some screw-ups that prevented her book’s timely appearance on the shelves of Barnes & Noble and Borders.

If booksellers and publishers can’t even coordinate to get books into the stores by the time they’re being reviewed, it’s no wonder sales of everything but the likes of Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code, and The Purpose-Driven Life are down.

Penguin UK’s recent distribution woes spurred Booker chair John Sutherland to forecast the complete demise of the brick-and-mortar bookstore. He placed the blame primarily on the industry’s rage toward bulk sales.

It used to be that patrons (never “customers”) went into a bookshop, browsed for hours on end and bought one book or perhaps no book at all. Now booksellers want you to “load your cart” with three for two, or an armful of “50% off” items. It’s the Tescoisation of the British book business. Nowadays you would no more think of going into a bookstore and old-fashionedly browsing than taking a tin-opener into the local supermarket and sampling the baked beans.

Despite the healthy Christmas sales, the walk-in, walk-round bookstore is doomed.

So will the physical bookstore become extinct? Or, perhaps worse yet, has bookstore browsing become a mostly culinary activity engaged in by yuppies and the leisured classes?

Today’s bookstores are part literature, part latte,” a Maryland newspaper delightedly announced over the weekend.

What’ll it be today?

A Jonathan Franzen novel or a French roast? Do you prefer Lemony Snicket or a lemon bar? How about a cappuccino over some Carl Sagan?

The owner of the bookstore profiled, Hard Bean Coffee & BookSellers, in downtown Annapolis, says that, when the shop first opened, he

thought it would be a bookstore that also had a cafe. Within the first year I saw the customer’s perception that it’s a cafe that also sells books.

He’s not worried that physical bookstores will fall by the wayside, though. “Some people appreciate the romance of going into the store,” he said.

Is that all bookstore browsing is now: either a romantic, slightly old-fashioned occupation, or a utilitarian pitstop for picking up holiday gifts by the armful? Or does the success of shops like, for instance, Miami’s Books & Books, Kalamazoo’s Athena Bookshop, New York’s Three Lives, and Portland’s Powell’s prove that the picture is considerably rosier than I’m making out?

I’ll be posting more thoughts — and at least one interview — in the coming weeks, but for now I’m interested in your opinions.

See also:

Tod Goldberg’s anecdote about an independent bookseller forgetting to order copies of his book for a reading and suggesting he sign “bookplates instead of books” for attendees of the event.


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