I love going to bookstores, don't you? But obviously not all bookstores are equal and some bookstores I prefer more than others. Initially, I was drawn to humongous bookstores. You know, the 5-story bookstore in The Fort. But it dawned on me that's not what I really want. What I really really want in my brick-and-mortar bookstores isn't an emporium but a quaint specialized shop.
That's not to say I don't want to visit big bookstore chains. However, through reflection, I've managed to narrow down what it is about huge bookstores that I love. It boils down to variety. Giant bookstores are able to stock a wide variety of books that cater to a large demographic. As a bookstore owner, that's good. As a consumer, the reality is, I'm not able to take advantage of that because at the end of the day, I'm only one person and I fit one specific demographic. For example, if my favorite fruits are grapes and oranges, when I go to a fruit store, I don't really need to browse through the apples and the bananas and pineapples. I'm only going to purchase grapes and oranges anyway. That's not to say I'll never buy all the other fruits but most likely, those occurrences will be infrequent and I don't have to get them from my favorite fruit store.
For the most part, I think people tend to "specialize" in a certain body of work. For example, I'm a SF&F fan who dabbles a bit into fiction and children's books. That means the section that means the most to me would be the SF&F section and other sections like health or business or art won't even warrant a regular visit. So in many ways, all that extra space of a humongous bookstore is wasted on me. Worse, browsing through all those shelves consumes so much time, unless I'm determined to kill time. But more often than not, time is a precious commodity and as much as I'd love to spend hours looking for a particular book, I'd rather not. By no means do I want to be merely browsing in just one shelf but on the other hand, I don't want browsing to be a long and difficult experience.
Having said that, why are we discontent with smaller bookstores? Well, the reason is because they don't have the specific books we're looking for. Now you might be thinking, am I asking for my cake and eating it too? There's a compromise, I assure you. The solution is to have specialized bookstores that cater to a niche. For example, A Different Bookstore and Aeon Books have a strong philosophy section. No more than two high shelves support that particular field but because they are specialized and they acquired (presumably) good philosophy books, those are really all the philosophy books that I'll need. A Different Bookstore also stocks mainstream SF&F titles so if that's what I'm interested in, they're the people to go to, in the same way that Booktopia has a mix of mainstream and not-so-mainstream titles. It's also a time-saver on my part since instead of browsing through half a dozen shelves, all I really need to carefully examine is one or two shelves.
Unfortunately, the real problem is finding those niche bookstores. Here in the Philippines, there's too few independent bookstores and it's no guarantee that there's a bookstore that specifically caters to your tastes. Still, those that do are possessed with an unwavering loyalty. For example, Banzai Cat is more or less a Booktopia devotee and that's easily the only place he shops for brand new books (he hounds the secondhand book market). Personally I haven't found a bookstore that caters to my own unique taste and that's why I spent a lot of time browsing through various bookstores, selectively patronizing each shop.
So what happens to the big, warehouse-sized bookstores? Well, a dilemma they'll eventually face is that of Internet-based bookstores. If the strength of a giant bookstore is variety, web-based bookstores trump them 99% of the time. The only thing giant brick-and-mortar bookstores going for them is instant gratification: if I buy the book today, it's here today, not 24 hours later. Still, if variety is your trump card, you'll be out-gunned by online shops. The secret I think isn't in having more money or having a larger shop but rather in finding and nurturing your niche.