As an unrepentant bookworm, it’s rather difficult for me to come out of a bookstore without purchasing a book. For a bookstore, they should be happy I’m dropping by because I’m almost guaranteed to be a customer. And a repeat customer at that. Other kinds of businesses (with the exception of grocery stores) can’t count on that from me.
However, note that I added the word “almost.” There are some reasons why I would not go to a physical bookstore for a book I want. Most of these reasons are practical in nature. For one, a bookstore may not have a particular book I’m looking for. Sure, I can order the book from the bookstore and get it later–and I have done this before–but I’m also the rather impatient type. If I get the yen for a particular book, that means I want to read it now, not a week from now. So it’s often faster to order it online myself. Physical bookstores (and libraries to some extent) are more for browsing, impulse buys, and finding those books that I’ve been meaning to get eventually but weren’t at the top of my mind.
The second reason why I might not go into a bookstore is that it’s a specialized bookstore. And not just any specialized bookstore. A specialized bookstore that concentrates on subjects that I have very little (if any) interest in–like self-help and religion. If there was a bookstore that specialized in nothing but fishing, I’d probably avoid that, too, unless I got advance warning that my fishing-obsessed co-workers were going to forcibly drag me to one of their weekend fishing trips. Life is short and despite being an unrepentant bookworm, I’m not indiscriminate. Because what’s the point of cluttering up my personal library with books that I don’t want or need?
And then sometimes I don’t go to a bookstore because it simply doesn’t feel right. Or to put it more bluntly, it’s the staff that attempts to make me feel ashamed for buying books that they don’t approve of. Actually, this can be generalized for all businesses. If you’re going to make a customer ashamed for buying something, then why the hell are you selling it in the first place?
The first two reasons why I don’t go to a bookstore are just mere inconveniences. The third reason annoys me. I’m noting this now because yesterday, I wandered into a bookstore in Missoula that really rubbed me the wrong way even though I did not have any direct interaction with anyone working there. While this bookstore has, as far as I’ve seen, done the best job at showcasing local authors compared to every other bookstore I’ve been to in the city, the atmosphere reeked of elitism.
The entire time I was there, I overheard the person working at the front desk talking to a customer who had asked a question. There’s a line between helpful recommendations and outright telling someone what they should read because everything else is dreck. I thought the person working there yesterday crossed that line. Another thing I noticed was a comic strip lambasting the bestseller* next to it, basically shaming anyone who wanted to read it. While I have no intention of reading this particular bestseller regardless of the comic strip’s presence, I thought it was a rather passive-aggressive attitude for the store to take towards the people who did want to read that book.
I walked out of that bookstore without buying anything. Because frankly, there was another independent bookstore literally across the street that was friendlier even if it was somewhat less organized and had a mysterious schedule for business hours. I’d rather interact with clerks who place no judgement on what readers wanted to buy.
Bookstores can run their business in whatever way they want. I’m just one potential customer, after all. Maybe I’m not that particular bookstore’s target. Perhaps I should think of it more as a specialized bookstore–one that caters to literary snobs. I’m sort of the opposite of that as I often enjoy reading genre fiction, including stuff that critics would call “trashy.” Yet despite that, I’m still bothered. I know bookstores need to carry bestsellers and genre books in order to stay afloat but I’m not sure why that particular bookstore wants to stomp on its cash cow. If you’re going to shame people away from buying a book they want, it’s going to be less likely for them to look at any of the other books you want them to buy.
*Aside: In some ways, I do agree with the comic strip’s assessment of the bestseller’s lack of literary merit, but not in the most obvious ways. It’s not that I think that most readers are stupid enough to buy into the bestseller’s philosophy–in fact, I think they’re smart enough to tell fact from fiction. The problem is in other people’s assessment of the readers, that they think that all the readers actually do buy into the book’s destructive philosophy. What is insidious is that it makes them feel they have the license to treat these readers (and others like these readers) accordingly.