Magazine article American Libraries

What If You Ran Your Library like a Bookstore?

Magazine article American Libraries

What If You Ran Your Library like a Bookstore?

Article excerpt


Bookstores have become a lot like libraries these days - a fact that raises the professional hackles of many library workers, whether or not they believe that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

First, bookstores have a lot of books. Stuff 175,000 books into a store and it's hard not to look like a library. The average superstore now stocks anywhere from 150,000 to 200,000 titles or more, and the number seems to grow steadily. These "collections" may not exactly challenge the largest research libraries in size or scope, but the typical Barnes & Noble now houses more books than 85% of all the public library systems in the United States.

Second, bookstores are consciously seeking to recreate the library ambiance by encouraging customers to linger. The Barnes & Noble Annual Report (April 1994), for example, describes its stores as "reminiscent of an old-world library, with wood fixtures, antique-style chairs and public tables, and ample public space and restrooms."

If comfortable chairs alone aren't enough of a lure, bookstores now offer a calendar of book talks, book signings, discussion groups, demonstrations, and performances unrivaled by all but the largest urban libraries. They have even started imitating the most sacrosanct of all public library services: story time and summer reading programs.

Even some loyal patrons are getting confused. One library director was quoted in the 1997 Benton Foundation report Buildings, Books, and Bytes as saying that he started worrying when he saw a woman come into a Barnes & Noble with a stack of books and ask where to return them. And self-styled library devotee Sally Tisdale, in her now-famous critique of current library trends in the April 1997 issue of Harper's Magazine, concludes that Barnes & Noble is a lot closer to her library ideal than a real-world library ever could be.

Counting beans

For all their similarities, however, at least one major difference prevails between bookstores and libraries: The latter cost a lot more to operate.

According to the Barnes & Noble Annual Report (May 1997), a typical superstore rakes in some $7.5-$10.5 million a year and employs a staff of about 34. Personnel include a manager, two assistant managers, a community relations coordinator (the person who sets up all those programs), and approximately 30 full- and part-time booksellers.

Barnes & Noble will not release specific salary information; however, applying standard bookstore industry salary standards, we can calculate B&N's personnel costs per superstore outlet at somewhere around $613,600 annually (one manager at $65,000 with benefits, two assistant managers at $32,500 apiece with benefits, and a community relations coordinator and some 30 full-time booksellers who average $7.50 per hour).

Note that most floor employees - those nice people who answer your questions, help you find books, take your orders, make your lattes, and ring up your purchases - receive $7.50 per hour or less. That's only slightly more than many of us pay our pages (those library employees usually forbidden to talk with anybody).

Now, let's examine the personnel budget of a comparable library branch, which superstores more closely resemble than independent libraries since many administrative functions are handled at the corporate headquarters (read central library). Using the Barnes & Noble average gross per outlet divided by $15 (the average retail price of a book) to approximate comparable usage levels, a superstore-size library branch would circulate 500,000-700,000 titles annually and employ some 30-32 FTE.

A typical staff configuration for such a branch in the Los Angeles area (detailed operating data is not available for branches at a national level) would include: one library manager at $57,000 with benefits, nine librarians of various stripes who each draw some $48,000 with benefits, five library assistants who average $35,000 with benefits, and 15 FTE aides and pages who are paid about $7 per hour. …

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