Rebuilding a Public Square Around Bookstores

This week began with news that Borders would not be restructured and will be closing all of its stores. This has sparked a fascinating discussion about the role of bookstores, both chains and local independent stores, and to some extent the role of physical space and physical texts. It just so happened that I read an essay this weekend by Clay Shirky which touches on just some of these topics.

Right now, Clay Shirky has a popular post circulating around twitter arguing that we need a news ecosystem that is “chaotic” and full of diverse models and experiments. Shirky has been expert at making this point, and shows over and over again why it’s true. He has been less consistent in actually laying out possible models.

However, he gets into much more specifics in a post on a different but related topic. Last year he wrote an interesting post about the future of bookstores in which he describes how bookstores will need to adapt to survive in a world of digital book sellers and ebooks.

The most famous version of this is bookstore-as-coffeeshop, where the revenues from coffee subsidize the lingering over books and vice-versa, but other ways of generating revenue are possible. Reservable space for book clubs, writers rooms, or study carrels; membership with buy-back options for a second-hand book market run out of the same space; certain shopping hours reserved for members or donors; use of volunteer labor, like a food coop; sponsorships from the people or businesses in the neighborhood most interested in the social value of the store and most interested in being known as local machers.

via Local Bookstores, Social Hubs, and Mutualization « Clay Shirky.

However, he notes, “the history of businesses that traffic in physical delivery of media has been grim these last few years. (This is the story of your local record store, RIP.)” Shirky suggests that to make the transition from primarily merchants of physical products, to hubs of physical space and relationships, it will likely require stores to become nonprofits.

As more and more of our digital public square is built on commercial platforms like Facebook that are out of our control, Shirky’s call for more communal, noncommercial community space is appealing. But this is not just intellectual, it is physical. Shirky notes that with an “increase in empty store fronts on shopping streets,” we are increasingly left with “a series of Citi branches, ATT outlets, and Starbucks that repeat at regular intervals, like scenery in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon.”

Although he doesn’t say it explicitly, Shirky’s hopes for a new kind of bookstore also reflect a hope for a new kind of community that values our off-line interactions without diminishing the value of our online connections.

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