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Normal’s Bookstore–refreshingly, anything but: Thoughts on bookstore impulse buying

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Back in March we made our annual trip to Baltimore for the Edgar Allan Poe birthday celebration, and Charles, who has spent more time in Baltimore than I have, took us to a used book and record store he loves called Normal’s.

The store had the rich smell of aging paper, binding glue, and vinyl. Interesting articles clipped from sensationalist rags were pinned to the walls. Movie monster action figures, old ashtrays and all other kinds of freaky knick-knacks were in every corner, on every shelf. NOLA jazz floated from overhead speakers.

But what truly stunned me was the variety of inventory. Good grief, “historic disasters” had its own section! I found a book I was sure I was going to have to order from Amazon (it was one I’d borrowed from a friend years ago and returned, but loved it so much I vowed to buy it again: Black Box: All-New Cockpit Voice Recorder Accounts of In-flight Accidents—in fact, shockingly, they had two copies in stock), an older copy of a collection of haunted house stories, and an issue of an off-the-wall literary magazine I’d never heard of which focused on Poe.

I had gone into the store only to browse. I came out having spent $20.

My exciting impulse buys refreshed my perspective on an old issue: Amazon killed/is killing bookstores. I was reminded that one of the reasons I stopped going to Borders or Barnes & Noble was because after awhile, they didn’t have that book on the Hindenburg or UFOs or whatever else I was interested in buying—three or four failed attempts in a row taught me that. I stopped wasting my time to even drive to the store(s) and look, because I knew all I was going to find were five hundred copies of whatever The New York Times Bestseller list was pushing, the latest manufactured marketing machine, or, later on, tons of gifty-crap like Mother’s Day in a Box and Grow-Your-Own-Zombie Kits (the presence of which further limited space in the store for, ahem, books).

At that point, I became quickly addicted to Amazon—I could find and purchase exactly what I wanted in just a couple of minutes. But what this did was cut down on my browsing, and hence, my impulse buying.

These large bookstores have forgotten that the backbone of their bottom line is varied inventory. People like me went into a store looking for one book on a specific topic, usually found it, then browsed around and picked up other things—many times not even related to the book we came in for—that we “just had to have,” often spending twice or three times what we’d intended.

Large bookstores think that spending shelf space on a book about the Roanoke Colony when they can use that same space for yet another copy The Hunger Games is a losing proposition. In truth, that Roanoke book probably guarantees the sale of a few other things and will bring in more cash than the sale of the single copy of bestseller will. In truth, they’re not even getting one sale from people like me, because we won’t even set foot in the door to browse. Sure, I’m one person. But I can guarantee you I’m not alone. If, per day, in the U.S. alone, one thousand of us who would’ve spent close to $40 each on books don’t even show up, the chain loses $40,000 that day.

Tiny places like Normal’s are not only beginning to come back, they’re thriving. But they’re thriving, in part, because they know enough to carry inventory to generate the impulse buy.

If you love books and are visiting Baltimore, Normal’s should be on your itinerary. It’s located at 425 E. 31st Street; their website is http://www.normals.com/. If you’re not going to be in Baltimore any time soon, pay a visit to your nearest small bookstore. I’m thinking you probably won’t leave empty handed.

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