what makes a good bookstore
July 4, 2008 6:40 AM   Subscribe

What specific qualities make for a truly good bookstore other than the content on the shelves?
posted by MrMerlot to Shopping (31 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I rarely browse bookstores, I go to buy a specific book I want, or maybe to compare a few when I don't have an exact title in mind.So the ability to have pretty much any book (new or used) into my hands within the week, is very important to me.
posted by Science! at 6:45 AM on July 4, 2008


Clearly laid out shelves, where I can easily find what I'm looking for.

Some kind of obvious alphabetising system, perhaps with tabs that stick out showing where each letter of that alphabet starts.

Somewhere I can go to to look for a specific book, and get told exactly which shelf it's on.
posted by Solomon at 6:50 AM on July 4, 2008



Music that isn't too loud or anoying

A discount/loyalty program

Books shelved correctly ("Radical Orthodoxy" does not go in Judaica. That's right, I'm looking at you Dartmouth College Bookstore.)
Buying used books.


Basic stationary supplies (to purchase)

A decent return policy

Gift-wrapping at christmas (or at least sell gift-wrap and tape.

Computerized inventory so you can tell me if you have it or not. Better yet put it on the web so I can tell before I visit.

A computer terminal I can use to look stuff up in the store (or even check my Amazon wishlist)

posted by Jahaza at 6:52 AM on July 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

Most bookstores can get most books within a week (and the ones they can't Amazon usually can't either).

Personally, I think it's important to have booksellers that understand how to handsell well. A good bookseller will be able to listen to the customer and find a book that the customer will enjoy, not just throw them a book the bookseller enjoys (though it's awesome when these things overlap). If your booksellers are good at handselling, it won't matter if a book is out of stock, because they'll be able to recommend something as good or better.
posted by drezdn at 6:58 AM on July 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

Track lighting, comfy chairs, knowledgeable staff, more than bestsellers in inventory, warm colors
posted by HotPatatta at 7:10 AM on July 4, 2008

No damn talk radio. If there's going to be music on it should be jazz or classical or at the very least something instrumental. There's a book store in Toronto called Type that I love to browse at but the music they play is so bloody awful I can't read a paragraph of any book without being distracted.

-- well lighted

-- I disagree with the above and say NO seating. Fuck these people in their chairs who leave books stacked all over their floor and make it so you constantly have to step over their stretched out feet. And fuck the people who sit or lie on the floor and read and the staff that don't kick them out! Go to the goddamn library!

-- I also disagree with the stationary thing above. I can't stand bookstores that sell christmas cards and shit and, imo, the sudden appearance of such things spells impeding bankruptcy. The exception might be some journal notebooks like moleskines. But greeting cards and doodads. Please.

-- don't keep much-stolen authors behind a glass case (bukowski, murakami, kerouac, etc.). Why? Because I can never find a staff member to get them out of the case!

- a good selection of obscure magazines. I don't need another place to sell Women's Weekly. I need to be able to find a single store that caries Spacing, A Public Space (still haven't found one), Stop Smiling, etc.--you know, magazines that would be of interest to people who read!

-- has a staff recommends section

-- has areas for new releases that truly are new, not just books that sell really well and came out two years ago.

STAFF that are

-- well read

-- polite

-- able to make recommendations on absurd requests (my fave: contemporary love stories that take place in modern times in American cities that have a male protagonist older than 30 and are written by a relatively unknown male author).

-- read the book review sections of local and international papers so that when you say, "I can't remember the name of the book but it was reviewed in this week's Globe and is about a doctor who..."

-- say please and thank you at the cash register (another shop in Toronto, Pages, has the rudest staff of any bookstore in the city; as a result, I browse there, write down titles, and buy them at the chain bookstore two blocks away)

-- keep things in alphabetical freaking order! (BMV at Yonge and Eg in Toronto has the most unsorted books I've ever seen. Bloody ridiculous. The staff says they have too much stock to keep it organized. I say every other store in the city manages, including their two other locations.)
posted by dobbs at 7:11 AM on July 4, 2008

Maybe it's cheesy, but I like staff recommendations with the employee's name by the recommendation. It makes it feel very human rather than a mega-corp and I like that each employee has their own place to recommend whatever they choose.
posted by sharkfu at 7:31 AM on July 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

Good coffee.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:37 AM on July 4, 2008

- No music, or very quiet music. I am very, very easily distracted by sensory information, so I can't read if there's much of anything going on.

- Similar subjects I enjoy shelved near each other. This is completely subjective, but there is a Borders I loved in Austin simply because one corner of the store had Philosophy shelved on one wall, and Psychology shelved on the adjoining wall.

- I, too, like the staff recommendations. I like local bookstores for this reason. It's often books I would have never heard of otherwise, and I've found great books this way. I particularly like to see these for genre fiction.

- I wish more bookstores had secluded chairs for reading. Most bookstores have small, communal areas for reading spread about, and I can't read with people moving in my peripheral vision. (Yes, I know. See: easily distracted by sensory information.) I don't see any reason reading areas all need to be communal anyway. It seems to be a design decision -- a bunch of chairs look good together -- but there are so many places they could stick solitary chairs. Borders is really bad about this; they will literally press chairs side-to-side. They also have these ridiculous benches sometimes. Some Barnes and Nobles have some solitary chairs, but it depends. Local bookstores seem a little better about this, but only because they have limited space.

- Large selection of things other than new books and bestsellers. I like when something other than those books have displays as well, but these usually accompany the staff recommendations I already said I liked.

- It actually doesn't matter to me whether or not the staff can help me find a book, because I'm too introverted to speak to store employees. However, I think that knowledge can manifest itself in other ways that are helpful, like shelving that makes sense.

- I tend to dislike bookstores that have coffee shops in them. Too busy.
posted by Nattie at 7:55 AM on July 4, 2008

Still the content. Or better, the unpredictability of the content. For some reason most bookstores around where I live all stock the same books. So I'll rather visit the ones where looking at the cases may bring some unexpected rewards.

If I already know what to get, it's much more convenient to order it online.

And having a good corner with bargain deals, or sales, will always drag me in.
posted by ijsbrand at 7:59 AM on July 4, 2008

I like it when they have local authors highlighted in a display/endcap. That way you can support the local bookstore and support the local authors easily. Also, highlight/group content that is area-specific: books on bike trails nearby, local camping, that kind of thing.
posted by 8dot3 at 8:40 AM on July 4, 2008

A good selection of magazines - maybe a shelf that highlights a few new or obscure magazines every week/month. Availability of foreign magazines a big plus.

A good selection of comics and graphic novels, organized in some sort of logical order.

Staff recommendations in every genre, not just one shelf for the whole store.

Shelving by author within a section. Borders often shelves the hardcovers and trade paperbacks away from the mass market paperbacks and it drives me insane. At the very least have it in both sections, so if I want the latest novel by Jane Doe, I can go right to the Ds in the Fiction section.

I do like a few sections devoted to new and popular books, or bestsellers. That way it's easy to spot books I may have heard about from reviews or friends.

Quiet is a plus, and enough space to browse without bumping into other people. Chairs don't need to be big or comfortable, but there should be a lot of them, and they should be placed out of the way of traffic. I rarely buy a book by an author I haven't read before without reading a couple of chapters first, and I want to be able to do that without being bumped into or stepped on.

While a separate audiobooks section is nice, it would also be nice to have audiobook versions next to the regular print books, if they are available. In my dream bookstore, I'd be able to pick up a card or something next to a book I want in audio, and take it up to the register where they'd sell me an MP3 audio version on CD or let me download it directly to my iPod.

Basically I have two goals when I enter a bookstore:
1. Find the exact thing I want efficiently and be able to buy it easily.
2. Explore new reading material with some guidance from the store, but without necessarily having to talk to staff.
posted by Mr Bunnsy at 9:07 AM on July 4, 2008

A community bulletin board
Community events
Maybe discounts if you live in the area?
Lots of nice places to read
Anything to differentiate it from the big box bookstores
posted by np312 at 9:25 AM on July 4, 2008

Serendipity. My favorite used book store is mostly organized by author as well as subject, but they also have a recent acquisitions section that has books piled on the floor. Staff picks are displayed/piled on the stairway to the second floor. I love digging through these piles for hidden treasures.

This book store also features tall shelves, shelves that are actually "secret passage" doors to back rooms, and a big orange shelf of nothing but Penguin Paperbacks. It has a "Hogwarts" feel to it.
posted by Brodiggitty at 9:35 AM on July 4, 2008

Best? A store that buys used books and employs a staff that often misses collectible first editions and puts them on the shelf marked $7.95.

(A friend of my husbands actually got a first edition Harry Potter from a Half Price Books this way. Bastard.)

Other than that, a large selection of used and new books in good condition is all I ask for. And cats are a nice bonus.
posted by TochterAusElysium at 9:35 AM on July 4, 2008

Staff who love books, and love working in a bookstore.

It also helps to have an owner who sees the bookstore as a community institution as much (or more than) a profit-generating business.

I say that as a former bookstore employee.

Also, cats!
posted by gingerbeer at 9:42 AM on July 4, 2008

Cats. You know it's a for real book store if there's a cat sleeping in the window / on the cash register, etc.
Quirky or colorful old employees/owner. Bearded if male, fat if female, or both. As a bonus, they can take care of the cat.
Old radical (politics or art) posters on the walls.
Dark wood shelving & furniture.
posted by signal at 10:21 AM on July 4, 2008

Locally owned and operated, and involved in the community. I will walk past the well-stocked shelves of the chain, despite the near-certainty of finding any given title there, to go to the local joint. At my local store, I know the staff picks are not merely paid promotions from publishing houses, I can talk to someone who's enthusiastic about working there and genuinely cares about books, and I can find local authors and topics.
posted by itstheclamsname at 10:25 AM on July 4, 2008

I love my local used book store because of the individual attention they give customers. I regularly bring in books to trade for store credit. If I decide to come back and shop later, they'll keep track of the credit for me. If I don't come in for awhile, one of the staff will call me and say, "hi, just reminding you, you have $25 in credit to spend with us!"

If I want a book and it isn't in stock, this bookstore will make a note of it and when they get it in, they will call and tell me they got it in and are holding a copy for me. Better yet, the book store staff pay attention to the books I buy (I buy lots of historic costume & textile books) and if they get something in that they think I'd be into, they call and tell me.

My local book store has a website that is updated frequently, with lots of photos and a blog. Every week they take photos of the "new arrivals" section.
posted by pluckysparrow at 10:33 AM on July 4, 2008

Nthing staff recommendations. I bought a few books based on staff recommendations at the late A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, and they've become permanent favorites.
posted by kristi at 10:37 AM on July 4, 2008

Locally owned. Snug. Not too brightly lit. Quietish. Browsing feels like exploring the forest rather than going from slot to slot in a parking lot. Staff that let you sit on the floor to look through the lower shelves or read. Hosts live music occasionally, with the local staff, not a drone at corporate headquarters, deciding who should play.
posted by PatoPata at 10:52 AM on July 4, 2008

I think the best bookstores tend to have a strong sense of identity. Some of them reflect the personality and interests of a highly-involved owner. Others are closely connected to a neighborhood, community, or particular ideological orientation, or they specialize in a genre or kind of book. That's what sets good independent bookstore apart from the big chains, although I wouldn't discount the possibility that a chain could have a strong sense of identity. The selection at one of these stores might be smaller, but it makes sense based on the store's identity. You can often gauge whether staff recommendations will appeal to you, because you understand where the staff is coming from. If you identify with the bookstore, the books on the front table are likely to appeal to you, and the things on the bulletin board are likely to be things that interest you. You feel, in some intangible sense, like a member of the community of people who go to that bookstore, which is a nice feeling.
posted by craichead at 11:26 AM on July 4, 2008

Lots of great advice here from fellow book/bookstore lovers. If the bookstore is in the U.S., I am happy if they participate in IndieBound .
posted by gudrun at 11:50 AM on July 4, 2008

A young readers' section that isn't subdivided into subjects (animals, magic, etc.). I love it when my niece stumbles onto a book that she might never have found otherwise.

Bookstores also get huge bonus points if they are located in a building that feels like it has its own story to tell.
posted by corey flood at 12:23 PM on July 4, 2008

I'm no hippie but I prefer locally owned, small places over places like Barnes & Noble mostly because I like the smell of old books and cramped shelves and I usually prefer used books over new.

Pretty much my criteria is:
- the owner actually would recognize me when I came in.
- primarily used books, and I could trade in my books for store credit
- affordability
- heating - really, my only complain about probably my all time favorite used book store is that the guy only runs a tiny electric heater, otherwise it's FREEZING in the winter.
- free bookmarks. Seriously, I love getting a bookmark to use with a book when I buy it.

Chairs are nice, but frankly if I'm going to read a book without buying it, I'll go to the library. Likewise, if I want greeting cards, journals, etc., I'd just go to an office supply place or Wal Mart or some place like that.
posted by champthom at 1:01 PM on July 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

a good store identity & specialty (occult? art? history? film?)
comfy furniture: comfy chairs, wood, maybe a fireplace if possible.
lighting: natural light coupled with warm golden artificial lighting.
slightly dusty smartypants kitsch (section signs made of scrabble tiles?).
some books faced out so the shelves are interesting to look at.
the bookstore i frequent has a small, smart, very lazy dvd rental section with no due dates, that's pretty ace.
friendly, weird staffers.
and yeah, a cat.
posted by twistofrhyme at 1:34 PM on July 4, 2008

more seats than a pub, less noise than the moon, open later than McDonald's, and a crazy-ass layout that makes you think it's actually four decades of shop mating.
posted by bonaldi at 6:20 PM on July 4, 2008

Free WiFi!
posted by TochterAusElysium at 8:22 PM on July 4, 2008

sharkfu writes "Maybe it's cheesy, but I like staff recommendations with the employee's name by the recommendation. "

Frankly, I frigging hate that. Why do I care what the pimply kid halfway to a BA at State Tech recommends? But do put out copies of the NYTimes book review. If I see a good review, I'll probably buy the book.
posted by orthogonality at 9:27 PM on July 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Lots of chairs, especially if they are comfortable and spread out. I'm not going to buy a book and spend xx hours of my life reading it if I can't read the first few chapters and do the page 69 test. As Nattie says, they should be alone and not in a great herd of chairs.

I like those little tags that say John, a worker, lovers Book X. It makes me feel like the whole process is almost a part of a conversation.

I echo most of the things said above, particularly the things in Jahaza's list.
posted by oxford blue at 12:39 AM on July 5, 2008

Atmosphere is a definite plus. For me, two things go into that. The scent of the place (even though I'm not a Starbucks fan, I love bookstores with that coffee smell to them) and just the general air of the people there. Not too boisterous, music's not too loud, and comfy chairs to read potential bought books in are what does it for me.
posted by isoman2kx at 9:49 AM on July 6, 2008

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