How is a bookstore not a library

I read this article in the New York Times a couple days ago about independent bookstores that charge customers to attend author appearances and book signings. Whether it is through a requirement to buy the author’s book or just charging admission, independent bookstores are using this as a way to help them make ends meet in an era of digital books and online booksellers. I was especially surprised by the comparison in the article of bookstores to libraries:

“Consumers now see the bookstore merely as another library — a place to browse, do informal research and pick up staff recommendations. “

I’ve always been fascinated by the boundaries drawn between for-profit booksellers and publicly funded libraries ever since my public library management course at Simmons. While there are many differences and similarities between the two, I had failed to consider programming differences. This reporter does not state it explicitly, but from this sentence we can follow the conclusion that, like the books they peddle, programming at libraries is free, programming at bookstores is not, or should not be.

When put in such simple terms, I suppose this makes sense. The patrons of the library pay for its existence – programming included – and so should not be charged to enjoy library funded author visits. A bookstore relies on the money it brings in from its customers, so those customers should be, or at least can be, charged for any services rendered. What I worry about in all this is the author, especially low profile or obscure authors who book (pardon the pun!) speaking engagements and readings at independent bookstores as a way to gain publicity (and really, isn’t that the main reason for book tours and author appearances?). Customers are going to be less inclined to pay to see an author they have never heard of but are nonetheless curious about than if, say, Stephen King came to town.

That is why I like the model my local and most favorite independent bookstore, the Brookline Booksmith, has adopted. If a big name author comes for a speaking engagement, they charge $5 admission and hold the appearance in the independent movie theater across the street. All the more obscure and local author events are free and held in the tiny basement of the bookstore. In this way, the bookstore banks on the popularity of some authors and gives free publicity to the unknown authors, who if they are worth scheduling, should at least be compelling enough to rack up a few booksales from the attendees. And two local businesses that in a lot of other places might have been long closed by now work together to bring readers, authors and books together.

But in the end, you do what you have to do, and if requiring that your customers buy a book or pay admission to see an author is what independent bookstores have to do to stay open, I’m okay with that. You just won’t see me paying for an author that I don’t know is any good.

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