SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Today I'm proud to be hosting bookseller Robin Agnew of the terrific independent bookstore, Aunt Agatha's Mystery Bookshop, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Aunt Agatha's is a charming shop, chock full of great mysteries, hand-picked favorites for display, and a warm and knowledgeable staff eager to match readers with that absolutely perfect book. Alas, the new-ish customer practice of "showrooming" has caused this small business owner to take pause and have an existential conversation with her inner curmudgeon. Welcome, Robin!
noun, informal: the practice of visiting a store
or stores in order to examine a product before
buying it online at a lower price.
ROBIN AGNEW: I often work in the store on Saturdays, usually our busiest day of the week, when our college town welcomes lots of out of town visitors and shoppers, especially in the summer when the weather is nice and it’s pleasant to walk around downtown.
Often visitors to the store will snap some photos. Some of them like the ambiance of our store which is, to put it mildly, packed to the rafters with books and book-ish smells. Some even take a photo in front of the store by our logo. I like that and find it charming.
More recently, however, I’ve found that many people use cameras for a different reason – to take a picture of a book they plan to then go online and buy for, I’m assuming, less money. Now, I can certainly accept that people will go online and buy things. I do it myself, That’s anyone’s prerogative.
What I find difficult to accept is the fact that we have taken a great deal of trouble to populate our store with the widest possible variety of mystery and crime novels, displaying them thematically, labeling and describing our favorites, etc. It’s often these books that are photographed. These aren’t books that could be found browsing on online - they are particular recommendations made by us with our particular sensibility.
I recently had a nice family – older parents, late 20s or early 30s daughter – who came in, browsed, and the parents picked up and bought a book. Their daughter merely picked up books I had carefully selected to display and photographed them, all the while chatting pleasantly.
She was assuming I could certainly understand her need to save 4 or 5 dollars. Being in a downtown, I see all kinds of people, from the genuinely destitute to the clearly wealthy. I’ve often given a discount or merely given books to people who obviously don’t have the money for something to read. I don’t even mind giving away a novel to an obvious drug addict – maybe that novel will give them a bit of solace, I hope so.
But why middle-class people feel entitled to go ahead and seek the “best deal,” the “biggest discount,” while at the same time demanding your service and attention I find difficult to fathom. I recently posted a whine about this on facebook and got a staggering number of responses, many from authors and booksellers. My dilemma: to put up a sign, or not to put up a sign? Is it too curmudgeonly? My husband thinks so.
I got answers ranging from charging a photography fee (appealing, but certainly difficult if not impossible to collect) to suggestions for signs saying “No photos,” “These books never run out of power,” “Buy local,” “Want to remind you that buying a book from us instead of online guarantees good karma” (this from a former bookseller, now a writer), “Photographs $5 payable in advance,” “Our books are shy. That is why we wrap them in brown paper before leaving the establishment,” to “No Drinking, Smoking, Electronic Purchasing, or Swearing.”
And from a couple booksellers I respect: “Signs, probably not, comments specifically to the individual, yes…The challenge is to make your point politely.” And from a longtime friend and colleague, “Independents should embrace being curmudgeonly – folks already think we are just because we work in bookstores. Mostly, I think that the answer to this issue is simply to keep doing what we do, which is engaging customers one on one when they walk into our stores.”
I have created a sign that says “Your cell phone is not a shopping tool.” And I know there are other reasons to photograph – to see if you already have the book, to add it to your list and come back to it later – but mostly this kind of showrooming is on the rise and while I haven’t yet put up my sign, it remains to be seen how far my embrace of codger-hood will go. I feel it coming on.
SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: When I saw Robin's original Facebook post, I tried to make her feel better by saying I used electronic media the other way around — basically, what I do is download hundreds and hundreds of free sample chapters, read them at odd times (on the subway, waiting at a doctor's office), mark down which one's I really like, then go find them at our local bookstore or the library.
Lovely Reds and readers, what's your opinion of "showrooming"? Have you ever seen anyone do it at a bookstore? If you were a bookstore owner, how would you handle it?
Tell us in the comments!