Would you pay to browse in a bookshop?

Last Friday, I was listening to You & Yours, BBC Radio 4’s consumer affairs program, and heard the CEO of HarperCollins say something that stuck with me all weekend.

“Only 35% of fiction in the UK is bought through a physical bookshop…I don’t want to take the bookshop away. I desperately want to keep it. But I think the question is, will they be able to sustain themselves?…In America, certain shoe shops are charging to try on shoes because people are just going in, trying them on and then ordering them online. I think the idea of a bookshop becoming a book club is not that insane.”

Victoria Barnsley, CEO of HarperCollins UK and International

You can listen to the discussion on Radio 4’s website (it starts at 21 min 05 seconds).

My first reaction was to wonder which shoe shops in the U.S. charge people to try on shoes. Fortunately not the ones I’ve ever been to because I find shoes impossible to shop for.

My second reaction was fear, which seems to be my default mode when I think about the possibility of bookshops disappearing. I say that even though I rarely buy things from bookshops any more – but the main reason for that is because I live in a country where the English-language selection is small.

Two Dutch scholars browse at the University of Leiden, 1610
Two Dutch scholars browse at the University of Leiden, 1610

When I visit bookshops in the U.K. and U.S., I’m so excited to be surrounded by books that I inevitably walk out with my arms full and my credit card smoking. But I also completely understand people who browse in bookstores and then buy wherever they find the best deal – which will often be online.

The radio program interviews some booksellers and also talks about how some bookstores have found ways to encourage people to stick around and relax with a book before they’ve bought it, for example, by including a cafe or comfy chairs. Apparently one of the motivations is to get people to stay long enough that they feel guilty about leaving without buying something. I wonder if it’s also because they want you to get so hooked by a book that you won’t want to wait for it to be shipped from an internet retailer, since most of these changes to bookstores came before the e-book revolution.

There’s something so wonderful about browsing in bookstores, and I know there are a lot of clever people trying to figure out how to keep them in business. What do you think would work?

Would Victoria Barnsley’s comment about turning them into book clubs work? Would you pay a monthly membership fee to go to a bookstore, the way stores like Costco and Sam’s Club make you do? Those two stores let you buy in bulk and get reduced prices, so what would you need from a bookstore in order to pay for a membership?

If a membership wouldn’t work for you, would you pay a small fee (like $2) to enter a bookstore if it was returned to you when you bought something – sort of like paying for parking unless you get your ticket validated?

Or does the idea of paying to browse seem completely wrong to you? Do you have any other ideas that bookstores could try in order to stay in business?

By Kat

Kat Latham writes sexy contemporary romance, including the London Legends rugby series. With degrees in English lit and human rights, she loves stories that reflect the depth, humor and emotion of real life. She's a California girl living in the Netherlands with her baby girl and British husband.


  1. Wow, I’ve never heard of this before, although I know that bookstores are being limited these days which is super saddening to see. I personally wouldn’t want to pay to browse in bookstores, sometime I don’t even have time to browse bookstores or to drive there” to” browse when online stores are the fastest and, yeah, cheapest way to shop. I’ve been to some stores where they don’t even carry the books I was there to purchase, which really irritated me. But I love bookstores and they are the fastest way to get some of my books when I didn’t already pre-order them and having to wait for them to be delivered. But I love going there to look at all the books and see, haven’t read yet books by new-to-me authors. The feeling of books in my hands and flipping through them~ heaven. But paying to go the the bookstore? I’m not even a member of Barns n Noble even though I’ve been thinking of it for years, yet don’t go enough to worth the membership cost. Yes, I know I’m bad but you know I can’t go there everyday, although I do wish too. I don’t know what bookstores should do, it’s hard when going against the online world.

  2. i’m against that idea because you could enter for a spefific book that they don’t have in stock and you shouldn’t be obligated to buy something else

    now one thing that i loved when i visisted london wa sthe place where you can sit in the bookstore…. that was fabulous because yes that made me open and stock several books that i would perhaps won’t boughtotherwise because i didn’t know them

    i don’t have that in my country

  3. I love a good bookstore but cannot imagine paying an entrance fee. I admit to being that person who visits the big bookstore but rarely buys there. I try to live on a budget and it’s hard to feel good about the purchase when I KNOW I can have the same book for a lower price at numerous other stores. I believe I would buy more from these stores if they would price their books more competitively.

  4. When our local Waldenbooks closed the need was so great for a bookstore that the local mall owner got in touch with the previous employees and begged them to open an independent book store!

    The employees of a bookstore not just the merchandise they carry that can make or break a bookstore thriving. They are the ones who for years had gone out of their way to make the store inviting and welcoming to young and old alike. They organized activities and a “play/reading” area for the toddlers and a quiet corner and table and chairs for those who wanted to read a paragraph or two before buying a book. Looking for something “new” to read or searching for another genre or author? Just ask and your wishes come true.

    When I go shopping for books I reach out to those employees, to bloggers who reviews and instinct I trust as well as family and friends. Yes, I do buy some books from Amazon for my Kindle but there is something about being able to hold a “real” book in your hands, to be able to re-read favorite scenes and passages, to turn that page of your favorite scene – to be able to read a BOOK and yes if you own it you can also write in it and underline favorite passages!

    I think that bookstores will remain strong IF they have a store that draws you in and keeps making you want to go back! If not I think that the local library might be a little busier the next time you visit because some people (my husband included) wants a real book to read not a “virtual” one!

  5. I wouldn’t want to pay to go in but I would if I had to, but I also prefer to buy from the bookstore and not online. I must be a throwback.

  6. I don’t think that would work and I can’t imagine a shoe store doing it either. I have a horrible foot to fit and who is to say I can even find one that I like or fits. As to books, they need to stay competitive. Maybe say you get a discount for buying more books – like full price for one and a bit off for two etc. I know I always buy more if I get to browse. It’s like for Amazon, you usually get free shipping when you spend over $25 so I make a point of spending over that amount. Maybe the book stores could give a discount after spending a certain amount. And helpful employees are always a plus.

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