Robert Gray: Bookshop 'Siteseeing' on the Information Highway

Most independent bookstore Web sites are a waste of time and money, and about as useful as a weathered motel on an abandoned highway.

I don't really believe the previous statement, at least not categorically, but I think it's a good way to shake things up and get this trip started. In recent months, I've become a bookstore Web site tourist, visiting them the way other travelers might "collect" the cathedrals of Europe. I'll be sharing some of my travel experiences with you in this space.

"I write in my notebook with the intention of stimulating good conversation, hoping that it will also be of use to some fellow traveler," wrote my unofficial mentor, the 17th century Japanese poet and travel diarist Bashö.  

Our trip begins with a simple question: Why do independent bookstores have Web sites?

I spend more hours than any rational human being probably should exploring the Web sites of bookshops coast to coast. My travels take me to ambitious destinations like Powell's Bookstore as well as more modest, yet appealing sites like McLean & Eakin Booksellers and Urban Think! Bookstore. I visit the technologically gifted as well as the technologically challenged. As Johnny Cash sings on a current motel advertisement, "I've been everywhere, man."

Although I'm traveling (virtually) for business as I search for gifted handsellers, that primary question has haunted me again and again, and it's worth repeating: Why do bookstores have Web sites?

The logical answer seems to be because, in an increasingly online world, bookstores simply must have a Web presence. Most book buyers are now Internet savvy and have a comfort level with shopping online that has cost traditional bookstores a substantial portion of their customer base

If, then, a Web site is a necessity, who are bookshops trying to reach? Presumably, the sites weren't built for current patrons, nor are they there to lure readers into the bricks-and-mortar store. The logical goal must be to extend a bookstore's reach beyond the limitations of geography; to bring the best of what a particular indie has to offer into the homes of Web-oriented customers nationwide.

Oddly, however, whether you visit a dozen independent bookstore Web sites or a hundred, you will see variations on a singular theme: "We are a marvelous, full service bookstore with a staff of knowledgeable readers who will be happy to help you find great books. Please visit us." And while the majority do have intriguing Staff Picks sections, the sites are primarily digital billboards.

Consider, for example, the fact that even though most Web sites offer recommendations by their best handsellers, few include individual e-mail addresses for those staff members, so a customer might be able to make a direct, personal connection with someone who shares their reading taste. This is the essence of service inside a bookstore, but Web sites tend to favor the info@. . .  approach, discouraging interactivity and person-to-person handselling.

Imagine hundreds of bookshop owners greeting everyone who came through their doors by telling them what great service was available, then running away like Alice's White Rabbit and no one taking their place to actually deliver on that promise.  

As a longtime bookseller, I tend to romanticize this profession. I can't help myself. I think that customers who patronize indies love an atmosphere that is at once indefinable and absolutely recognizable. Online, I'd call it the "84 Charing Cross Road Effect," that unique ability to attract and retain customers who might never actually visit your store, but who want to become part of the family nonetheless. A good Web site should mirror, not contradict, the store's atmosphere and potential for good, productive (both warm and profitable) conversation.

I want to find out how bookstores are addressing this challenge. I'll be your tour guide as we take this siteseeing trip, but I encourage you to talk back. Tell me what you've seen, too. I'm on the hunt for creativity and innovation online. I'll be talking with booksellers as well as webmasters about creating and maintaining a strong Web presence.

What does it take to build a great bookstore Web site? Let's hit the road and find out.--Robert Gray

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