A Bookstore Is No Substitute for the Library

A bookstore like Barnes and Noble, however, is not comparable to a library at all.  A chain bookstore often seems to contain fewer unique titles than the average library and these titles seem to be chosen based primarily on sales.  When I walked around Barnes and Noble on my last visit, I found myself severely disappointed by how few books the store really contains.  Multiple copies of Wimpy Kid, Who Was, Dog Man, and Harry Potter greeted me from the shelves of the children’s section.  Meanwhile, newer releases I was searching for were missing, as were some popular children’s titles, some of them award winners.

Bookstores, and chain bookstores in particular, often seem to stock their shelves based on what will make them money, while libraries curate collections with a far different set of criteria.  Libraries do make an effort to purchase popular titles, but they also consider the quality of books (based on professional reviews and industry awards), the gaps in their collection (what subjects are missing or need to be updated), and the need for diverse representation (both in fiction and non-fiction).  The selection libraries have to offer is, quite simply, far wider than whatever is trending at the moment.

The commitment of libraries to housing all types of books is also why students are better off going to the library, and not a store, for homework assignments. The average bookstore does not typically stock books on obscure topics, nor do they offer a wide selection of non-fiction in general because non-fiction titles tend to be expensive (not uncommon when a book is marketed to a limited audience).  The average parent is not likely to spend $20 or even $30 on a book that will be read once for a school assignment, so there is no reason for a store to stock such books.  Libraries, however, often seen themselves as repositories of knowledge, and so remain dedicated to keeping obscure titles that fill in gaps in their collections, even if those titles do not circulate often.

Of course, there are indie bookstores that specialize in niche books and that often make a point to stock quality titles, local authors, indie authors, and unusual books that may not be popular, but may still appeal to their specific audience.  (My own indie bookstore, before it closed, had a real fondness for pricey gift books for children, as well as for offbeat middle-grade titles–things Barnes and Noble was less likely to sell.)  However, such stores, generally speaking, are still no replacement for a library.  Books parents may ask for at a library, such as ones that help children process grief or ones that help children try new foods, are simply not titles that sell enough copies to justify taking up shelf space in the average store.  Or stores may contain a few titles on a subject, but not as many as the library.

None of this is to say that bookstores are not wonderful places to visit; I love going in bookstores myself.  However, I am baffled by book lovers and parents who consistently use bookstores as libraries–and never actually set foot in their local libraries.  Perhaps, being less familiar with the book industry, they really see no difference between what bookstores shelve and what libraries shelve.  Maybe they don’t care.  Maybe they just want to be able to drink coffee while they read or let their children play.  But I can’t help but think that many people would find a world of new books opened up to them if they would set foot in the library now and then–and could discover titles besides Dog Man.

18 thoughts on “A Bookstore Is No Substitute for the Library

  1. Christopher says:

    It’s also important to note the value of librarians who not only curate the collections but can act as guides. Even though some libraries no longer have a reference desk people should still feel free to ask for help. Staff in big bookstores don’t always even know what they’ve got, although a nice thing about small indie bookstores is the staff are often just as knowledgeable as librarians.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      That’s a good point. I’ve been in bookstores where sales associates hadn’t even head of the books I was asking for. I would have difficulty believing they had any familiarity with literature at all based on the conversations I had. That’s not to say all sales associates are ignorant of what they are selling. But, the fact is, they are very often just selling it, not necessarily reading it or curating it. Librarians who work with books would likely have a better sense of what books may be developmentally appropriate for certain ages, or good for read-alouds, or that sort of thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. CHARIS RAE @ charisrae.com says:

    Libraries are the staple of my childhood. I cannot even begin to describe how much they mean to me. They provide books to people who might otherwise not be able to afford it. That should be celebrated!
    When I walk into a bookstore, I feel a vibe of “you need to buy this.” It feels commercialised. When I’m in a library, that disappears. I feel at home, and I sense a love for reading that’s deeper than a bookstore. In a bookstore, the underlying goal is to get you to purchase something, but in a library it’s that you read great books.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, bookstores are very commercial and I think maybe that’s part of what I found particularly off-putting during my last visit to Barnes and Noble, for example. Everything was a popular title, for instance, suggesting already it was all about the sales. Libraries are better at buying and promoting mid-list books that have value, but that aren’t getting much attention from the public. I felt like the store was never going to stock or promote worthy mid-list titles because it wouldn’t help their bottom line. It didn’t feel like it was about the books at all.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. christine @ lady gets lit says:

    I work in a chain bookstore…and I COMPLETELY agree with the sentiments in this post. Don’t get me wrong, I love working in a bookstore. The pay sucks, and it’s still retail, but it’s lovely to be surrounded by books. The problems you pointed out, like people using the goods without purchasing them, are totally real. It honestly really frustrating to me that people come in, read entire books without making a purchase, and leave their stuff all over the floor (especially parents of small children…*side eye*). I would never claim that bookstores can replace libraries. I realize that a good portion of my customers are well-off financially, or they wouldn’t be able to spend money on books. Like you pointed out, the books we stock tend to be things that sell well, so we have a woefully small selection of smaller, lesser-known books, especially diverse ones. This is endlessly frustrating to me, as a booklover. Libraries are also so much more than places to read free books. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this very important topic.

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    • Krysta says:

      I always find it weird when people read whole novels at a store and then put them back on the shelf. You’ve used the good that’s being sold. So…you should pay for it, yes? Most people agree you wouldn’t just put a shirt on and wear it around a department store for a few hours to impress someone and then put it back on the rack. And you wouldn’t consume an ice cream cone and then not pay for it. It’s just…odd to me. Especially when the library is offering free books for you to read and return!

      Yeah, I do think the people in bookstores tend to be more affluent. I think a lot of people feel weird entering a store if they know they can’t pay for anything. The expectation usually is that you will purchase something, so many people wouldn’t camp out for hours without paying like you can in the library (another great reason to keep libraries open!).

      And, yes, definitely. I saw a distinct lack of mid-list titles on my last visit to Barnes and Noble, for instance. It was all bestsellers. And those are not necessarily diverse. Whereas libraries typically make a conscious effort to curate worthy mid-list books and diverse books.

      Liked by 1 person

      • christine @ lady gets lit says:

        Exactly! I understand that window-shopping is a thing, but even now, I hate going to a bookstore if I’m on a book-buying ban. It’s depressing! But I love going to libraries, even if I’m already reading five books at once, because it’s a safe space to appreciate what books have to offer.

        I do think a lot of affluent people avoid libraries because “they’re overrun with homeless people.” These are the same customers who come to me and complain if there’s a vagrant-looking person wandering the store, because “he’s staring at me” or “he’s making me uncomfortable” – as if I’m allowed to kick someone out for being in the wrong income bracket.

        You’re absolutely right about Barnes, too. We only really care books that sell, which tends to be mostly white-authored books about white people. Even the LGBTQ+ section is woefully tiny – embarrassingly so, actually. From a business perspective, I understand it, but it’s definitely still frustrating.

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        • Krysta says:

          When I talk about the library one of the first things many people say to me is, “Oh, there are so many homeless people there!” Or, “I never sit at the tables. Too many homeless people!” I also see a lot of adults claiming they have to be given special access to the children’s computers because, “They’re all full in the adult section.” The adult section has three times more computers and I have never seen them all in use at one time. I think these people don’t want to sit by a homeless person, so they decide they should be allowed to take over the children’s area. All of this is very sad. People without homes are still people! They deserve to be treated with respect and not with fear. But, yes, I can easily imagine that some people decide to use the bookstore as a library because they want to have library services but with the “right kind of people.”

          I appreciate that people patronize bookstores, of course. I want bookstores and publishers to do well so we continue to have more books published. But I think if people are using a bookstore as a library, and not buying books, just because they don’t want to see someone with less money than they have, there is a problem there.

          Liked by 1 person

          • christine @ lady gets lit says:

            Well said! I think fear and prejudice against poverty and homelessness is one of the last acceptable forms of prejudice in a weird way. Whereas if they just treated homeless people as PEOPLE and sat next to them at the library, they’d realize how prejudiced they’ve been.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Enobong says:

    It’s apples and oranges, they serve two very different and equally purposes. And libraries make books available to everyone, not just the rich and financially privileged. Killing libraries is another to keep the poor and disenfranchised down

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    • Krysta says:

      Exactly! I love bookstores and I certainly want people to buy books and keep the publishing houses afloat to print us more books! But they’re different from libraries and certainly no replacement! I love that libraries exist primarily to promote equal access. You pay nothing to enter the door, you can stay all day, and you can access everything free from books to classes to concerts. What other institution does so much?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. ofmariaantonia says:

    Totally agree that bookstores are NOT a replacement for libraries. I really only go into a bookstore if I’m planning to purchase. And the last time I was there, they didn’t even have what I was looking for. But I understand they can’t stock every book. It’s their job to sell the books. That’s their business model. Good in its place. But NOT a replacement for libraries.

    Good post!

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I imagine it’s difficult for physical bookstores because they can never compete with the seemingly unlimited stock on the Internet. I would like to see more displays highlighting worthy mid-list titles. Does Jeff Kinney’s new book need a display, for instance? It’s going to sell like crazy anyway.

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  6. Stephanie says:

    100% with you on this. I love a good bookstore, but there’s a reason why my blog is called “She’s probably at the library…” Libraries add incalculable value to their communities and should be treasured as the absolute goldmines that they are.

    Excellent post!

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  7. DoingDewey says:

    I rarely go to bookstores and hadn’t ever thought to compare the books they stock to those available at my library, but it makes a lot of sense that it would be harder to find obscure titles there! Definitely another great reason bookstores can’t stand in for libraries 🙂

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    • Krysta says:

      I think the difference was more apparent to me because I don’t often go in bookstores, either. So I thought, “Hey, what is happening here??” XD But I think most people wouldn’t notice the difference if they don’t follow the book market. When my local indie store closed, my one friend couldn’t understand why I was upset I was left with a Barnes and Noble because they were “the same.” This friend doesn’t follow the book market, so if they’re looking at shelves of books, I guess it all looks good?

      Like

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