Independent bookstores are now faced with the unthinkable: charging admission for author readings and signings. With competition like Amazon, large chains, and e-book sellers eating into their profits, brick-and-mortar businesses are beginning to ask customers to pony up out of economic necessity.
The idea of people using commercial outlets as their own, cleaner-smelling libraries is a charming one, but, according to some indie-bookstore owners, charm is pretty feckless when it comes to paying bills. Heather Gain, the marketing manager of the Harvard Book Store, says, "We're a business. We're not just an Amazon showroom." And Nancy Salmon, floor manager at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, California adds, "They type titles into their iPhones and go home. We know what they're doing, and it has tested my patience."
So now bookstores are selling tickets at five or ten dollars a pop, or requiring customers to purchase a book for readings and signings. And it seems reasonable to contribute a small sum in the interests of preserving physical, community-minded gathering spaces for bibliophiles, which artificial delivery systems will never surpass, even if the shipping is free.
But the issue continues to be controversial. Keith Gessen, author and editor of egghead magazine N+1, thinks all events should charge admission. He said, "I think it makes it more fun. I don't think you should be able to walk into a Barnes & Noble and get to look at Joan Didion." And speaking of Barnes & Noble, the country's largest bookstore chain has never charged admission for its events, according to a spokesperson. (But they will charge you $139 for a new entry-level Nook.)