I still mean to get back to my trilogy of posts about free riding (the second one will give some detailed examples of what I mean by the term, and the third will discuss why I think the concept is important to Christians.) But in the meantime I wanted to pass on this nice illustration, from an article in the Economist about the death of big-box bookstores.
Stores like Borders have provided a rare, atmospheric and pressure-free space for bibliophiles, often in strip malls next to a Home Depot.
But alas, this precious “pressure-free” element may be the problem. Now that these bookstores are closing, local papers are lamenting the loss even as they profile customers who never quite managed to open their wallets. A recent article in the Elk Grove Patch, for example, considered the precarious fate of its local Borders bookstore—the only non-religious bookstore in the Californian city, just south of Sacramento. Yet the locals quoted are perfect examples of the problem:
"I just come in here to have coffee and say hi to my friends," said John Vega, 73, a former Marine and amateur novelist who lives in Elk Grove. "I wouldn’t buy a book here."
"People come in and they take a $25 book, read the whole thing and put it back on the shelf," he said.
Then there’s Emmanuel Evans, a 19-year-old “comic-book aficionado who says he’s burned through at least 50 books while crouching in the store’s cozy aisles.”
Nashville, Tennessee, is still reeling from several bookstore closings, including a Borders and the more beloved Davis-Kidd. The result, as reported in the Nashville Scene, is an “object lesson in how truly awful it is to live in a town where used bookstores and the pitiful offerings of Books-a-Million are all we have.” The problem, however, is that no one seems willing to buy full-price books anymore. Campaigns to get people to buy books from their local bookstores—such as “Save Bookstores Day” on June 25th—miss the point. While there is demand for real bricks-and-mortar places to gather, drink coffee and read new books, such places can’t exist if the market can’t accommodate them.
This is free riding according to my definition because no one would open a bookstore solely designed to cater to these folks, i.e. people who come in to while away the time without buying books, or even to read books they have no intention of buying. The big-box bookstore model (deep inventory, comfortable faux-community surroundings, and no pressure to buy) worked over the past twenty years for a variety of reasons, but the reasons are no longer operative and what were once quirky and intriguing distinctives are now crushing liabilities.