Join an "Intellectual Gym" to Save the Book? Really?

A brain lifting weights

We're exploring creative uses of library spaces this month in the TechSoup for Libraries piece Libraries as Co-working Spaces. I recently came across an intriguing think piece by Nick Fouriezos in the online magazine OZY. The article makes a modest proposal on why brick-and-mortar bookshops should reinvent themselves as for-profit libraries. I just wanted to run this concept by you to see what you think.

Introducing the Intellectual Gym

I'll simply quote Nick Fouriezos on the intellectual gym concept. "Imagine a literary hub where you could read books, meet for reading circles, participate in daily writing workshops, and attend a frequent carousel of author signings. All for, say, $20 per month. In this fantasy, you could check out a single book at a time or even buy a physical copy just for kicks. Think of it as your intellectual gym membership."

The intellectual gym idea addresses the decline of booksellers like Barnes & Noble as well as the independent bookshops that are still hanging on in the era of Amazon. The author maintains that the way to save the physical book market is for brick-and-mortar shops to reinvent themselves as for-profit libraries.

But Wait, Isn't That Basically a Regular Library?

This is the part that amused me. "Sure, if homemade drip coffee is the same as Starbucks lattes," Fouriezos says. The difference is that for-profit libraries would offer an experience that would make them worth the money. To do this, "bookstores would have to add comfier chairs, more communal spaces, and expert staff who can make better recommendations than any algorithm."

He quotes Ernie Smith, who writes the twice-weekly online newsletter Tedium: "Those walls are kind of its selling point: Buy a coffee, get lost inside a book, maybe take it home with you."

What People Want

I'm honestly baffled by all this. Most public libraries are experimenting with creative uses of their space, including the addition of comfy seating and even cafes with good coffee like the one at the Kansas City Central Library. Our unsung librarians can also make excellent recommendations, often better than an algorithm.

Fouriezos maintains that people need communal gathering spaces outside of home and work. These should be places where bookworms could find like-minded bibliophiles in spaces that cater to their uniquely literary social needs. Know of any place like that?

It's also worth mentioning that there are a number of monthly nonprofit subscription libraries around the country and the world affiliated with the Mechanics' Institutes, which actually predate public libraries.

Saving the Book

Despite the struggles of Barnes & Noble, the U.S. book market looks to be in pretty good shape. We still have 2,300 independent bookshops in the U.S. And the U.S. book market has been pretty steady from 2010 to 2016, with 2.7 billion books sold during that time. I might add that libraries buy lots of books. They are pretty much the mainstay of the trade publishing industry. The purchasing power of libraries is quite surprising.

The question is: with our 9,000 U.S. public libraries providing for our need for communal gathering spaces outside of home and work, do we really need intellectual gyms?

Any thoughts on the need for intellectual gyms? Please comment below!

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