The day Borders announced its liquidation I was distraught. Not because I was ever a regular Borders customer; because, as a book lover I hated seeing yet more stores disappear.
And yet, Borders has never given me the customer experience I expect from a bookstore. When I forgo the option of buying a book online and have it delivered directly to my door, I am looking for more than the choice of taking it home with me there and then. I am looking for a personal touch, someone to help me choose my next read.
This experience was delivered over and over by a small bookstore in Malta. One of the owners of the shop, which was aptly named Sapienza, from the Italian word for wisdom, was regularly in the store. An avid reader himself, he always asked customers what they were looking for. And on the frequent occasions when I didn't know, he would ask for the last book I enjoyed reading and recommend something similar. Although I don't even know his name, he introduced me to countless new authors that I might otherwise never have discovered.
Even the way Sapienza was set up encouraged communication with the shopkeeper, who sat at the counter near the entrance of the narrow store. Perhaps it wasn't intentional, but the proximity to the shopkeeper as soon as one walked into the store was conducive to starting a conversation.
Because of this optimal customer experience I was extremely disappointed when a few years ago, after more than 100 years in business, Sapienza was sold to a company that already ran a chain of bookstores. Rather than make the most of a winning formula and replace the knowledgeable shopkeeper with another book expert--thus retaining the store's most valuable asset--they instead turned it into a copy of their other bookstores and my reasons for going to Sapienza disappeared. I no longer had to go to the store; I could easily shop for books online, especially since the online store Play offered free delivery.
It was a missed opportunity. Sapienza's model should be emulated by the bigger bookstores who want to remain relevant in this world of increased online shopping. Because they are unlikely to beat the online marketplace's prices, they have to offer optimal service to lure customers into their stores. Staffing their shops with employees who love reading and can make great recommendations is an added value that customers appreciate and will hopefully look for.