Columns > Published on July 28th, 2016

Bookstores As Innovators

“Do you sell iPads here?”

I was asked this question at least a half dozen times during my various stints as a bookseller. It always puzzled me in its consistency. Does a small, independent bookstore seem like a place that would sell Apple products? 

Reflecting back, however, it's not so far-fetched. We tend to think of the print book as having been around forever, but their widespread accessibility is fairly recent, coming about only with the advent of the printing press. The truth is that books and printers have always stretched the limits of technology and over the past decade or so, bookstores have fought declining sales with creativity.

We tend to think of the print book as having been around forever, but their widespread accessibility is fairly recent

Books To Go

One innovation that has recently surfaced is the Espresso Book Machine, which allows stores to print books on site at the point of sale by turning PDFs into physical paperback books. The first Espresso machine was implemented at the World Bank InfoShop in Washington, D.C. in 2006. Parisian booksellers Librairie des Puf are now using this technology to make 2,000 formerly out-of-print titles available. 

The benefits of such a device are numerous; bookstore owners don't need as much floor space, and it puts independents in more direct competition with online retailers by offering immediate access to a much wider array of titles. Particularly for bookstores servicing universities and other schools, it presents an easy way to provide text books. Unfortunately, the price of an Espresso Book Machine is still quite high, and there aren't too many of them worldwide as of yet.

A Place For Ideas

A great bookstore is a hub for the community; a place that draws people together over words and ideas. Books, after all, have always been more about ideas than the physical binding that they're printed on. As a result of the perceived divide between digital and traditional formats, a number of innovators have taken steps to stitch the two worlds together.

The Pigeonhole, launched by Random House employee Anna Jean Hughes and partner Jacob Cockcroft, bills itself as a “book club in your pocket.” Its purpose is to capitalize on the trend towards serialized books, allowing readers to share comments and interact with the authors. There's also Bookindy, a Google Chrome extension that takes your Amazon search and shows you the best place to purchase the same title for less at an independent store.

Have you seen any wonderful bookstore innovations lately that the world should hear about? Let us know in the comments!

Header image by Maximilian Schönherr

About the author

Leah Dearborn is a Boston-based writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in international relations from UMass Boston. She started writing for LitReactor in 2013 while paying her way through journalism school and hopping between bookstore jobs (R.I.P. Borders). In the years since, she’s written articles about everything from colonial poisoning plots to city council plans for using owls as pest control. If it’s a little strange, she’s probably interested.

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