The Point of View of Bookstores

Observations on designing good bookstores and our relationship to the literary world.

Paricha 'Bomb' D.
10 min readApr 15, 2023
A beautiful The Corner Bookstore in New York that packs a punch.

There is a Japanese term for someone like me, a noun specifically to describe my condition: Tsundoku — someone who collects unread literature. You know those types. We can’t walk by a bookstore without saying hi to the hardcovers, we have a million excuses for why we should buy at least one book (to help an independent bookstore! the cover is beautiful! it’s signed!), and we never think about shelf space. Ever.

There’s a fine line between that and bibliomania, a 19th century term first coined to describe an obsession with collecting unique, rare, first-edition books but has now been used to describe a “passionate enthusiasm” (read: healthy hobby) for collecting books. Either way, it’s a fatal flaw in my character, a thought that occurs to me as I gaze forlornly at the neat pile of 20 or so books that I lovingly purchased on a recent trip to the US.

Marie and Sean are very normal friends who do think about shelf space.

Sigh. Are you like me or are you normal?

Anyways, if you’re anything like me, you might also enjoy visiting bookstores and making observations their place in the world. You might wonder why you gravitate towards one more than others, why you easily pick up books here but not there, why you can spend hours browsing in one (relatively) small store but feel less aroused amongst a behemoth collection. Because what’s more normal than buying too many books is definitely an obsession with design choices around said books.

Because what’s more normal than buying too many books is definitely an obsession with design choices around said books.

Though I can’t say that I’ve found the secret to designing a killer bookstore, I thoroughly enjoy speculating the point of view of each bookstore I visited through the design decisions they make. Photos make for a beautiful essay in this case; I’ll sprinkle little observations here and there about what makes a good bookstore for the purposes of this pseudo-analysis. I will only be considering proper bookstores (not newsstands that sell literature) and independent ones at that (sorry B&N!). Let’s nerd out — too bad we can’t smell the books here.

Cover out, please

In general, I’ve found that I bought more from a store that is not afraid to dedicate shelf-space to the book’s full frontal view. The only logical conclusion here is that, I —oh no — do judge a book by it’s cover.

P&T Knitwear in New York isn’t shy about covers.

Or, perhaps the covers entice me and other would-be readers to pick it up, read the blurb, check out the author and her background, ruffle through it’s opening lines.

P&T Knitwear isn’t one to shy away from a visual spectacle; it has an entire wall dedicated to showing-off covers, even at heights my hands cannot reach. Certainly, rows of beautiful covers gives me pause, talked to me in whispers: “I’ll get ruined in the packages of Amazon”. They holds my gaze just enough for me to check out the ratings on Goodreads and see if I can’t just get the book at home so I don’t have to pack them in my checked luggage.

This cover-to-spine visual ratio in a bookstore speaks to me very quickly upon entrance; when I see a lot of covers and their magnificent colours, I take that as a cue to explore. When my mind is put into discovery mode, my hands instinctively reach out to the visual style that makes me feel excited, adventurous, slightly discomforted. The key to exploring a bookstore (and probably making a purchase) is a well-designed little trigger. If we’re looking at this through the Fogg Behaviour Model, our motivation is already there i.e. we want to support local stores and we want to escape into a good narrative.


When my mind is put into discovery mode, my hands instinctively reach out to the visual style that makes me feel excited, adventurous, slightly discomforted.

We are activated to keep exploring, in other words, when the curator helps us enter the many worlds between the covers. A bookstore is a multiverse of madness, the book covers our Dr. Strange (or America Chavez); without guidance, we would be lost and stuck in our biases and comfort zone. We would just ask for what we already came here to buy and that’s no fun. That’s just Amazon.

As readers, I think it’s time to rethink the old adage and open up yourself to being intrigued — not prejudiced — by beautiful covers. Bookstores should be a visual feast, as much as a literary labyrinth.

Level with me, will ya?

Speaking of a feast for the eyes, bookstores should consider triggers at eye-level. Humans are creatures of remarkable self-centricity and we operate, on most days, as walking bags of ego on the hunt for food. On some days, we will hunt for books — and on these days, we will need to see things easily, or we will move to our phones and other daily distractions.

So, I suggest bookstores have plenty of covers facing up and out, golden “signed copy” stickers screaming in our faces, and the soft voices of the staffs cooing from the Staffs Recommendations section (you can almost see a personal butler’s gentle hand gesture welcoming you to an exclusive party for readers). Only when I sat down at the LGBTQ-centric Fabulosa books that I realized that — yea! — they really had their recommendations at my eye-level.

Fabulosa Books in San Francisco leveled with me (eyes).

Even better, can you make little nooks and crannies and corners and other unused spaces into shelves? City Lights in San Francisco had these fantastic setups to capture your wonder; one a make-shift shelf attached to a beam right next to the entrance and the other a shadowy closet space with limited legroom.

These are clearly personal preferences, in that I like the “oh look! books where they shouldn’t be!” vibes. The unexpected arrangements add a flavour of discovery, and borderline taboo of the banned books. In any case, don’t tell anyone I can be lured into a van with a good anthology of short stories by an author from a minority background.

City Lights in San Francisco and it’s wonderful use of space.

Knowledge doesn’t get cheaper with price

Having said all of the above, sometimes discovery doesn’t always have to be so cryptic or experiential. I’m talking about sales items. If a bookstore wants to get rid of some stock, I think it’s totally ok to put discounted books right up front, visible in a specific corner, or even outside the store.

I don’t think it devalues the content of the book at all (not that anybody is thinking this, but I’m being defensive anyways). Most sales items I’ve found have been hardbacks making space for their paperback cousins, some copies of bestsellers with minor defects, or just plain old but popular titles that has been around too long.

Fabulous sales at Browser Books and browsable sales at Fabulosa Books, both in San Francisco.

I don’t know the inner workings of how books are discounted but shout out to Green Apples of San Francisco, Books, Inc. of Palo Alto, and P&T Knitwear of LES, NYC. for making the sales shopping experience pretty smooth. I may be (totally) biased but these sales are a good reminder that bookstores, the safe enclave of escapist fantasies that they are, still inhabit a world governed by money and monthly cycles of capitalism.

They’re a different kind or constraint on the discovery experience, albeit a straightforward economic one that actually helps make a purchase decision easier. Sales give me a better reason — permission, even — to support them and less guilt for bringing yet another book home to sit in my own nooks and crannies.

Make Place, Not (just) Space

Just because we live in a capitalistic world, we shouldn’t forget that bookstores aren’t just physical spaces where one can give up your hard-earned monies for your addiction. They could be spaces for communities to thrive. I’m thinking bookclubs, author tours, book fairs, Halloween parties, and whatever else that’s not just solely about selling books but are still (hopefully) income-generating.

While I realized that most of the revenues probably won’t come from these events, it feels nice to think that bookstores can help gather people to connect on the things that matter to them.

Hot books and iced coffee, yes, give it to me!

I love meeting authors, for instance , because it’s interaction that rarely happens IRL. These author events are like a fan greet with your favourite singer after a concert. It’s a chance to revisit the stories with the author and to share what these stories mean to you; I hope the author appreciates that too. Green Apple has a packed schedule of visiting authors, and so does P&T Knitwear, which also has an amphitheatrical seating and a recording studio — a move towards empowering new creators as well and continuing the cycle.

These author events are like a fan greet with your favourite singer after a concert.

In any case, I thoroughly enjoy going to bookstores with my good friend Steven (hi Steven!) and talking to the people who works there too. We talked about books we picked up as we browsed the new arrivals, and the recommendations we have for some recent favourites. Which, in hindsight, aren’t normal topics of conversations we have away from bookstores. The setting really do, for me, facilitate connections with people over stories, and not just our day-to-day woes and workplace complaints.

Steven browsing books.

Tattle tales, welcome

Lastly, I love it when staffs have fun with the place. Like handwritten cards for Staff’s Picks, with their names and a short review scribbled between colourful, hand-drawn flowers or other motifs. Or when they make new or find very specific categories that wouldn’t necessarily belong in a Dewey system. This is curation at its best, like when the staff highlights minority voices or taboo-ish topics like drugs. It’s totally ok to name names, the more niche the better to catch our attention with because, let’s face, it we’re all a little weird inside.

Commodity aesthetics, decolonize, drugs — and rock’n’roll?

If it isn’t clear already, a part of me is, at all times, looking for a business partner to open a bookstore with. Maybe with a hidden bar to help pay for rent. Bookstores have a special place in my heart, somewhere between escapist fantasy land and a very fun university with no exams. As much as I love going to bookstores though, I have to admit that the idea of this place and my relationship to books must probably change in our modern world.

At the end of this shopping tour, I decided to settle on a few rules and a semi-promise to myself so I don’t struggle with carrying everything home across the Pacific. I told myself that if a book is 1) rated 4.0 or more on Goodreads with in the sizable thousands 2) not available at local bookstores in Thailand or online and 3) on sale, then I will go ahead and buy it. I think the hoarder in me is finally turning a corner on e-books given the tragedy that became my luggage. Perhaps some books can be felt just as deeply in electronic form. Perhaps.

I’m not sure what will happen to bookstores — or the concept of one — but I know that our world and my room will run out of space soon. I do think we have to move to waste-free world. Books are one of the oldest invention we have and they are — this is not much of an exaggeration — sacred.

How do we get all these experience onto a flatscreen at our fingertips? How do we pack all that wonder and urgency into a digital space?

I don’t know. But I would certainly miss the smells of new paper, the screaming colours of hardcovers, the meet & greets & quiet book readings, and the inevitable transience of these warm physical spaces that truly do not scale with our hunger for more and more profits.

I’ll miss these.



Paricha 'Bomb' D.

Socially-conscious design educator and instigator in search of challenges that will help us thrive in the 22nd century.