DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It wasn't that long ago - right? - when we thought bookstores were dying. No more strolling bookshelves, chatting with staff about their favorite reads. Just go buy online - well, not so fast. Many independent bookstores, once threatened with extinction, are thriving. Barnes & Noble, still the dominant chain, is trying to create a better customer experience. And even Amazon is building physical bookstores. NPR's Lynn Neary takes a look at why books are back.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Not too long ago, when Amazon first introduced the Kindle and e-books were all the rage, a lot of people thought printed books and the stores that sell them were going the way of dinosaurs. A decade later, print is outselling digital. And Amazon is opening brick-and-mortar stores, seven so far. The newest is located in a high-end mall in New York City.
JENNIFER CAST: We call ourselves a physical extension of Amazon.
NEARY: Jennifer Cast is vice president of Amazon Books.
CAST: So when you walk into our front door, what you see is our first table, full of books. And it's called highly rated, 4.8 stars and above.
NEARY: Make no mistake. This is no fusty old shop where a customer can get lost in the stacks. There are no stacks. Instead, books are shelved with the covers facing out. And Cast says the store is organized around features familiar to anyone who has ever bought a book on Amazon, features like, if you like this, you'll love this. These features are based on data collected on the website or on Kindles. And data, Cast says, is at the heart of the store.
CAST: We have so much wonderful information from customers about what they read and why they read and how they're reading. And to be able to surface that in a store to help customers discover books is what we're all about.
NEARY: And there's one other very important way the store connects to the website.
KATHERINE FABIANSKI: Yeah, so right over here, you can - we do have price-check scanners throughout the store. This one will give you the list price. But it'll also give you the Prime member price.
NEARY: Katherine Fabianski, assistant manager at the New York store, scan's a cookbook with a price of $35. A Prime Amazon member will get it for $19.77.
FABIANSKI: What's great about the store is, like, it brings a lot of our Prime members in because they got this price today. And they don't have to wait for it to come to their home.
NEARY: And then do people join Prime, too, also?
FABIANSKI: They do. You can join Prime at our register. Yeah, of course.
NEARY: Amazon's entry into the physical bookstore business could be viewed as a threat to small independents.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: All right.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Did you all need a bag at all today?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Nope.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: OK.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you so much.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Absolutely.
NEARY: The Greenlight Bookstore in the Prospect Lefferts Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn is tucked in among an eclectic mix of stores - nail salons, barber shops, dry cleaners, delis. Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, who owns Greenlight, says she's not too worried about the new Amazon store.
JESSICA STOCKTON BAGNULO: In so many ways, we're in a different business. And it seems very much like those stores are trying to replicate the online experience. And we are trying to do something completely different.
NEARY: This is the second store Stockton Bagnulo and her partner, Rebecca Fitting, have opened in Brooklyn. Their other store in the Fort Greene neighborhood has strong ties with the surrounding community.
They hope to build a similar relationship with people in this area because, Fitting says, indie stores that have the support of their local community are the ones that succeed.
REBECCA FITTING: And people are starting to understand and realize and learn a little bit more that shopping in your community helps you feel more connected. It helps your tax base. It helps make your surroundings more interesting. And if you don't support that, then it goes away.
NEARY: One way the store is working on building its relationships with the community is with events.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: So, Brice, if you could actually just stay up here at the counter and help any customers while we get all set up, that'll be perfect.
NEARY: Recently, Greenlight employees set up folding chairs in the rear of the store to get ready for an evening event, a reading followed by a conversation between Mexican writer Yuri Herrera and Buzzfeed book editor Isaac Fitzgerald.
ISAAC FITZGERALD: Hello, sir.
YURI HERRERA: How - you're Isaac?
FITZGERALD: Isaac. Very nice to meet you.
HERRERA: Thank you, thank you for doing this.
FITZGERALD: Thank you for writing that book, which is absolutely marvelous.
HERRERA: No, it's...
FITZGERALD: I mean, all of them...
NEARY: Author events are becoming increasingly important to independent bookstores like Greenlight. Stockton Bagnulo says they're a way to sell books and build awareness. They also create an important role for the bookstore in the community.
STOCKTON BAGNULO: In reality, a bookstore is a really unique kind of space, where, you know, people from different walks of life can cross paths. I mean, it's a very sort of democratic kind of product. And it's kind of a space where people can come in and start to have conversations. And that's the kind of space we want to be.
NEARY: These days, it does seem that a bookstore has to be more than just a bookstore to succeed. In addition to author events, many stores host festivals and book groups. They have cafes, where customers can relax. Some even have full-scale kitchens.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: New call, two grilled cheese and a mash a la carte.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Mash a la carte.
NEARY: Lunch is underway at this Barnes & Noble in suburban Eastchester, N.Y. Customers can choose from a menu that includes everything from ricotta pancakes to kale salad to entrees of chicken or salmon.
ARMANDO: Good afternoon. How's everyone doing today? My name is Armando. I'll be taking care of the table this afternoon.
NEARY: Barnes & Noble is experimenting with restaurants in several stores. And manager Kathie Bannon says, so far, it's been well received.
KATHIE BANNON: We're fortunate that we have this platform to be able to experiment and see what this does. And from what I've been able to see and hear from people, they are so happy and so pleasantly surprised that they can add this to their life. They can add this to their routine.
NEARY: The restaurant, which includes an outdoor patio and a bar, opens out into the bookstore. It's designed around a wide-open, central space that Bannon refers to as the Piazza. Shelves of books branch off from this area.
BANNON: Yeah, there's little nooks and crannies. And people, you know, can come. And they can get a glass of wine if they'd like. And they can come and get a, you know, assortment of things that they want to browse through or, you know, whatever they like. Whatever makes them comfortable, we're - you know, we're very accommodating.
NEARY: Can they carry their glass of wine from the restaurant over to the book area (laughter)?
BANNON: Yes, they do. Many people do. They - they'll come in. They'll get their selection. They'll go have a glass of wine. And they'll do that in the restaurant as well.
NEARY: Barnes & Noble says all this is still in a testing stage. So it won't say whether the restaurant is helping to sell more books. And that, of course, is the whole point. Whether online or in a physical space, with a full menu or a makeshift seating area for events, bookstores do still revolve around books. Lynn Neary, NPR News.
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