Discussion: Bookstore Cover Charges

Today’s post contains my reactions, comments, and subsequent ponderings that came about during and after reading a “Cultural Comment” piece from The New Yorker. It happened to be in one of my social media feeds, and I barely hesitated before clicking: Should We Pay to Enter Bookstores? by contributor Howard Fishman.

I’ll start off by saying that my first reaction to this questioning headline was a hard and fast NO. And while my opinion after reading and thinking about Howard Fishman’s words and real-world examples is still NO, the underlying points can and should be fairly considered. So I’m going to do my best to do just that.

Howard Fishman starts the piece with a personal anecdote about finding a book in the Strand – an iconic New York City bookstore – and a related moral dilemma. “The Strand was selling the book at a modest discount off of its suggested retail price, but I suspected that it would be less expensive on a certain ubiquitous Web site.” Amazon is not named in this piece, but I’m going to be “bold” and assume that’s the site he is referring to – here’s another sentence to back up my assumption: “If I ordered it from this Web site, it would be delivered to my door, the next day, for free.” I’m guessing this is a reference to the Prime offer of next-day delivery.

He then continues to talk about the battle that so many of us face – or those of us who are able to purchase books at their suggested retail price but are still bound by a budget. Do I make the one purchase here in this bookstore, or go online and make three purchases for the same price? Do I support this local establishment for the sake of supporting it, or do I make a choice that allows me to obtain a book (or books) I want while still allowing me to buy food or make a payment on a bill? Howard Fishman considers a bookstore admission fee, which would grant the admitted individual pressure-free browsing time, access to the books on the shelves (which would still have to be purchased), and could perhaps even allow the bookstore to lower its prices.

Now, in the very next sentence, Howard Fishman admits: “I’m not an economist, so maybe this idea is an unsophisticated one.” Yeah, I am quite skeptical about an admission fee leading to lower retail prices – because book SRPs are not set by the bookseller/store owner. Although, it is an optimistic idea.

To continue, Howard Fishman mentions a couple of bookstores (yes, two), that have already implemented an admission fee: Bunkitso in Tokyo, Japan, and Livraria Lello in Porto, Portugal. After looking at online photos of these two bookstores, I know that I would certainly – as a tourist – fork over their cover charges for a chance to see them in person. As a resident, I would likely look elsewhere for my book shopping. Both Tokyo and Porto have other bookstore options without an admission fee, so it would be possible to step foot into a bookstore without having to pay my way – or at least that’s the immediate conclusion I came to.

For my less impulsive conclusion, I thought about my favorite bookstores (used bookstores). If they implemented an admission fee, would I still shop there? One of the reasons I’m so fond of them is because of the prices of used books; if the admission fee was as much as one of those books might cost – let’s say $10 – would that turn me away? Truthfully, no. I would still visit and shop those bookstores. Now, I don’t go on weekly shopping trips to bookstores, mainly because I use the library quite often (i.e. I don’t buy books very often) and when I do go book shopping I make pretty selective purchases. This is all to say that I visit and shop at at least one bookstore once every month. An admission fee would not make me decrease that already small number, because the physical act of walking into a bookstore is as much of an enjoyable experience for me as reading a book. It’s an event, a moment, a special occasion, in that bookstores are not like other shops or stores – and just like I would buy books inside, I would pay to get myself inside if it was required. I am in complete agreement with Howard Fishman, as he said in his article:

I know that people with a fondness for other physical things that are bought in physical stores have a similar feeling about those experiences. For me, it’s bookstores. I want them to always be there. I want to be able to get lost in them, to lose track of time in them, to encounter titles and authors and subjects in them that I hadn’t anticipated, and to leave them with an armload of titles that leave me brimming with anticipation.

So if I had to pay an admission fee to visit a local bookstore, I would. Because there’s no other place I would rather spend my money on books.

Now that I’ve laid out where I stand on whether or not I would pay an admission fee, I want to reiterate that I still don’t believe bookstores should implement this kind of fee. Howard Fishman makes the broad suggestion that while he would pay the fee, he also believes “that others would [pay], too,” – and no, “if they could” does not follow that statement. My problem with this type of statement is that it ignores the vast influence Amazon has on even the biggest book lovers who are in reach of local bookstores – especially those who live on a tight and/or inflexible budget. That hypothetical irresponsibly ignores the fact that reading, book consumerism, and publishing already favor the more financially fortunate – not all readers can afford to buy books at their SRPs in a bookstore (and of course not all readers have local bookstores conveniently nearby to support even if they wanted to or could). Howard Fishman alludes to the use of a fee being a stepping stone to boosting the bookstore economy, but I think it would be a step in the wrong direction.

Which brings me to the next facet of this topic: economic value. Would an admission fee provide an economic value to a local bookstore? Yes, possibly. It would of course depend on population, sales, and numbers specific to each bookstore, but there’s a possibility that it could bring in more money. I am not against bookstores being creative when it comes to staying open – Howard Fishman provides great examples in his piece, like selling swag or bookish merchandise – and as their status of a private business I respect the fact that they need sales and money to do so. But again, what it all comes down to is who is using the bookstores, and what an admission fee would do to the people who patronize them, look at them as comfortable/open/safe spaces, and value them as entities that aren’t just trying to sell you “stuff”.

Howard Fishman talked to a few NYC bookstore owners after his reflection at the Strand, and they were adamantly opposed to implementing an admission fee. Sarah McNally, owner of McNally Jackson Books, told Fishman this: “’They’re one of the few public spaces left. It’s my responsibility as a bookstore owner to figure out how to stay competitive. Charging admission?’ she asked, incredulously. ‘What about children? What about teen-agers? Absolutely not,’ she said. ‘I’d rather close.'”

That’s pretty refreshing to hear from a bookseller, although the owner of the Strand, Nancy Bass Wyden admitted that charging customers to come into the bookstore would be “‘a great future conversation to have.'” She did explain that they would have to offer cafe or “club-like” services and free events as an incentive, but I don’t get the sense an admission fee is in the near future.

This is the first I’ve come across this question and this situation, and I’ve spent the past couple of days thinking deeply about all the words I’ve written here about it. I still feel like I could say more, but I think and hope I’ve adequately touched upon the sides of this question that deserve attention. No, bookstores should not charge admission. If that becomes a trend more widely considered, it will be extremely disappointing. I know that book buying is not the same for everyone, and that I am one of the privileged ones who has access to and can shop from local bookstores basically whenever I want. But if there comes a point in time when bookstores, facing closure because of a giant competitor, would rather close than charge a ridiculous admission fee, it will be a sad day in every sense.

As always, I look forward to hearing from you and finding out your thoughts on bookstore admission fees, or any of the topics that came up in my post. Thank you for reading.




  • Kal @ Reader Voracious

    How about instead of suggesting an admission fee for entry (making access to books even more difficult & would hurt the community aspect of indies), Howard PAYS FULL PRICE FOR THE BOOK. Revolutionary, I know. And he wouldn’t even have to wait a day for it to arrive on his doorstep.

    This whole article pissed me off with his lack of self-awareness at being part of the problem. Because if you can afford to buy from an indie, you should. And if you choose not to, don’t window shop in there for crying out loud.

    This is a great post though, I appreciate how much calmer you are than I would be in my response haha

    • Kelsey @ There's Something About KM

      You have said it perfectly. His lack of acknowledgement (or worse, lack of realization) of his position – going into a bookstore to buy a book, thinking about how it would be cheaper to buy on The Web Site, then lamenting the state of local bookstores and showing his support of the fee – is baffling.

      And thank you! I realized after throwing a bunch of reactionary words into my post draft that I wanted it to feel more thoughtful and conversational and less like an on-the-fly, unstructured rant (not a comment on anyone else’s rants, I’m just not able to adequately express my disdain in a quick rant). 😆

  • ericarobyn

    Woah! This one got me going. I love all of the points you make and I’m very happy I didn’t read Howard’s article. Phew! The biggest issue for me would simply be access! My budget is very tight, but I still love perusing the shelves at my local bookstores before snagging something that fits my budget. If there was a fee to enter, I honestly don’t think I would go in. When I was in my early 20’s I always refused to pay cover charges at bars too, it just seems silly to me. I would understand it if there was an actual event, like an author signing or something. But paying just to enter would definitely be a no for me.

    • Kelsey @ There's Something About KM

      That feels silly to me, too! And I really wish Howard had asked community members and/or other patrons of bookstores about this – I know it’s just an opinion piece but I think the whole article would have been more well-rounded if he had included the voices of those who would be directly affected.

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