It’s all we hear about now: the Internet is radio for ideas. An idea that hits the right group of connected individuals online can spread in minutes. Leaders and marketers of all kinds can align like-minded people, engage them in a new idea and change the culture—usually quickly, almost always for free. Then there’s the local bookstore, which is fast becoming a mausoleum for ideas, the place to find old, dead ideas, well shelved.

A generation ago, we needed bookstores to give us proximity to a well-organized and stocked collection of books. We usually knew what we wanted, and in the rare case we didn’t, a great bookseller would hand-sell us what we needed. Today, however, proximity to books is just a click away. Not just some books, but every book. And today, of course, if we don’t know what we want, you can bet our friends do. Now we have more friends than ever, and those friends are collated and sliced and diced and Googled, and every bit of information is exactly where we expect it to be.

In this environment, independent bookstores have become the antithesis of the ubiquity of the long tail’s endless web. But they needn’t retreat from this new reality. They can thrive.

First, the smart stores will accept the new rules of engagement (see Megan Zabel on Powell’s strategy, p. 26). Second, they need to amplify the viral, to retrofit one of the defining characteristics of the Web and apply it to the real world. In one of the great ironies of our day, consider the juxtaposition of two items: the increasing ease with which the power of ideas can spread (and the interconnectedness of people around those ideas), contrasted with the stultifying librarylike organization and status quo protectionism of the typical bookstore.

It’s ironic, because bookstores are where the whole thing started. The informed and curious among us went to find the next big idea at bookstores. Bookstores offered authors and publishers a platform to find and organize their target audience. Along the way, the chains decided the answer was more selection and lower prices, two things an independent can’t compete against.

But independent bookstores can leverage their historical advantage: organizing and leading tribes of people who are focused and motivated to engage with each other and buy (yes, buy) books (from you!). Serving coffee isn’t the answer. Creating a coffeehouse culture where ideas spread virally is.

If I ran a local bookstore, I would pick a dozen or so categories that have natural affinity groups in my town and assign staff members to blog about them and create an e-mail list of people eager to hear from the store. The store then becomes the center of an idea universe, the connector, the initiator, the place to be. Invite book clubs to hold gatherings in your store and organize special events. Celebrate Julia Child by challenging local cooks to meet up and exchange recipes in your store. Measure the right things, like how many obsessed and delighted customers you have, how many buy 10 books in a visit, not just a single bestseller. Good data helps you make good decisions. Get wired and bring in projectors for live virtual readings from big-name authors, not as an alternative to the Net, but better than the Net, the same way a night at the movies can be better than a DVD at home, alone.

How about helping your fans get published? Not everyone has a novel or memoir in them, but you could use short-run printing to publish books by locals on any topic they choose. The best part is that your local authors would market these books for you: by word of mouth and word of mouse.

I’m not talking about adding a few tactics to help you do what you’re already good at. I’m talking about abandoning what you’re good at (since the Web is so much better, faster and cheaper than you are) and instead investing everything in being great at a new thing, a vital thing, a thing that spreads.

The bookstore is dead. Long live the bookstore.

Author Information
Seth Godin is author of Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us (Portfolio).

More articles from PW's Viral Issue:The Viral Loop

by Adam L. Penenberg

The Networked Agent by Kate LeeThe Listening Game by Megan ZabelSharing Is Caring by Ellen ArcherVirtual Book Tours by Kevin Smokler and Chris AndersonCreating Your Viral Loop on Twitter by Rachel SterneBlogging as Multiplier Effect by Adam L. Penenberg