NOTE: When I first made the acquaintance of Tim Wojcik and discovered his career included both bookstores and libraries, I invited him to write a comparison of the two. Herewith, Tim's response.
COMPARING BOOKSTORES AND LIBRARIES
Tim Wojcik, About.com Guide to Librarians/Library Science
I see two main differences in favor of libraries over bookstores.
1) Libraries (public) accept everyone, everywhere. Theoretically, at least. One may think "That's exactly what's wrong with a library, it can't be more selective of its clientele." I see the potential demand coming from everywhere and anywhere as being richer and more vibrant than demand coming only from those willing to pay for the materials and services. As a venue for the "backstock" of information and ideas, libraries should and usually do offer more than a bookstore. Backstock does not include bestsellers or hot titles.
The potential richness of characters one can meet should also be greater in a library than in a bookstore. At a bookstore, one usually meets only those who have enough money to pay. At a library, you get more kinds of people; those with enough money, and those without.
A library doesn't use a selection criteria based on the profitability of the selection. For a "for profit" bookstore, every selection, one way or another, must contribute to the bottom line. Libraries select based on a more broad criteria including utility to the public.
I distinguish between for-profit stores, and those run by folks who don't have to make a profit. There are still bookstores who can survive by breaking even, or can stand a slight operating loss because the owner has funds from elsewhere to cover living expenses. The non-profit stores often do keep interesting if slow moving inventory because they are passionate about their collection (and they can afford to be).
If the megastores are so great, then why aren't they everywhere that people are? A really good business will figure out how to be profitable in all neighborhoods. What is sad about the issue of bookstores vs. libraries is that the bookstores can pick their locations in a way that libraries usually cannot. If libraries located only in the "better" parts of town, they would look and feel alot more like a cushy suburban bookstore. Fact is, lots of libraries in the suburbs must look like a Borders because that's the expected comfort level of their user patrons.
2) The second big difference between the bookstore and the library is access to online information onsite. Bookstores don't have terminals available for their customers. Not even for checking inventory. Why is that? Libraries trust their user patrons with a terminal; why can a bookstore trust their customers with one? Whatever the marketing reasons, the reality is that the bookstore is limited to only what they have on hand. With very large inventories, a customer intent on "buying" something will come away with merchandise. But a seeker of specific information - well, that's not what the bookstore is about. They don't do reference service because there's no money in it. That is, no money in it yet. Will bookstores be the site at which to download the latest bestseller into an e-book? Or will libraries provide that public service? Someone will.
Having said all that, I still think that libraries and bookstores are two partners in the same pond. Having managed bookstores for several years, I know that the pleasure of matching the right book with the customer often has nothing to do with the amount spent. Bookpeople and librarians are related spirits, I think.
Ultimately, libraries must be comfortable enough for onsite traffic acceptable to women and men, boys and girls. What the megastores have done, unfortunately, is to raise the expectation level by providing the comforts and the calories of home onsite. Libraries aren't funded to provide those amenities.
Finally, bookstores don't want the library user patron. They want a customer. Bookstores never had the mission to provide education to the citizen. That belongs to the library. There's plenty of room for both the bookstore and the library. They can and do complement each other.
USED BOOK STORES: AN APPRECIATION
I can't resist used book stores. I like new book stores too, of course, but I can only take so much antiseptic cheery brightness at one time. They don't appeal to all your senses like the used book stores do; they don't radiate that sense that Charles Dickens or Oliver Wendell Holmes might once have thumbed through books here. Modern book stores, which have always been air-conditioned, smell more like air freshener than like books. Used bookstores have that unmistakable scent of old leather, must, ink and glue -- when I was little, I believed that was the smell of thought.
There's a kind of squashed together feel about used bookstores, partly because they're often not that well lit, their aisles are narrow, and their shelves jammed to overflowing with books. Books in new book stores have to earn their keep or be sent back to the publishers, but these books can hang out as long as it takes until the people who need them have a chance to discover them.
The strangest things may end up paired, side by side -- books of Herblock's political cartoons beside Erma Bombeck, whose books are next to the light verse of Noel Coward; books on film theory jostling with books on sex goddesses and screwball comedies and the Beatles, first editions of Charlotte Perkins Gilman paired with spy stories through the wonders of alphabetical order. There are always unexpected treasures that you didn't even know you needed -- a 1904 Boy Scout Manual, the first few issues of Mad Magazine, old Oz books... Some of my finds have turned into ideas for columns.
But of course the nicest things about used bookstores are that you can find there things that should never ever have been allowed to go out of print, and you can chat about books with the owners and other customers who love them as much as you do.
Note to people who can't resist a used bookstore: There's a series of books called the Used Book Lover's Guides, which help you find antiquarian and used book stores throughout the United States. Published by the Book Hunter Press, the series includes guides to New England, the Mid-Atlantic States, the South Atlantic States, the Midwest, the Central States, and the Pacific Coast States. Each volume, city by city, lists the addresses and driving directions, phone numbers, hours, size and specialties of the collections of bookstores open to the public; they also supply addresses, phone numbers and specialties of mail order and "by appointment only" bookstores. For more info, go to their web site, http://bookhunterpress.com.
Nobody who can read is ever successful at cleaning out an attic.
You are welcome to copy and distribute or e-mail any of my own articles (but not those by my guest writers) as long as you retain this copyright statement:
Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.