Free riding: interlude

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.

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2 thoughts on “Free riding: interlude

  1. Doesn’t Borders get to return unsold books to the publisher for a refund? If so the book serves to attract a customer who buys a coffee and a pastry (probably more profitable to Borders than selling the book) and reads the book for free. Borders later returns the unsold book to the publisher. In that case, perhaps Borders is the free rider, to the benefit of Borders and the detriment of the publisher?

    And it seems to be working for them. According to the Elk Grove Patch article, that Borders location is still open (after the company filed for bankruptcy) because it’s one of the most profitable locations and they hope to find a buyer.

    I’m still confused about your definition of “free riding,” and how it relates to the classical definition. It seems like there are several very different kinds of things going on under your broad definition (if I understand you), some of them harmful as in the classical sense, some of them win/win situations as in the print shop example. I’m curious to see where you’re going with all of this.

  2. Thanks for posting this. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why these stores closed, except for the fact that when I went to them, I RARELY had coffee and croissants, as I actually LOATHED the pseudo-arrivistes who pretended they were literary ‘types’ while they rarely read anything more in-depth than the local People or US Magazine. Only in the last year or two (as I was working on my Doctoral diss.) did I frequent such establishments, but only because the local university library was too noisy (yeah, go fig.) and the local ‘coffee house at Borders’ was a nice ‘change of pace.’

    But I NEVER thought of taking up space on a regular basis, and/or reading entire books for free. Isn’t that a form of ‘theft’? Well, I now have a Kindle, and it seems to fill the need for a ‘new book’ and portability in a coffee shop like Starbleccchs. Community cannot be maintained or enacted, when everyone is in their electronic idol boxes, though… which is why I turn mine off, whenever a person approaches. I don’t like those kids who never raise their heads when a live soul is in front of them, preferring their DS/PSP ‘toy’ instead!

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