Libraries in Retail Environments

Long ago and far away, I was hired to work in the state’s oldest continuous public library. The building was beautiful, stately, and was the obvious brainchild of someone with a lot of money.

It was also under construction.

As part of a renovation millage, that good old library was getting a facelift and an expansion, forcing the collections to be relocated during the work. The powers that be looked around the neighborhood and settled on a nice space in the local mall, right across from the movie theater.

When I saw this article about Aurora, CO opening a computer center inside their local K-Mart, it drew that concept back to my attention. It makes sense – see the story about the woman who looked up a recipe in the library so she could buy the ingredients in the grocery section – and it’s also part of a growing trend.

Economic realities are often discussed in the library community. Hard-to-find full-time jobs, scant money for programming, scaled-down acquisitions are all fodder for lament. But for those libraries seeking to find a location to serve new sections of the community, partnering with more traditional retail environments can have major advantages.

I currently split my time between working at an academic library and working at a retail store, and the approaches to attracting customers (patrons/users/term-of-the-month) are on opposite ends of the spectrum, certainly. The academic library, a private institution, has strict security and access policies. But the public libraries I used to work at, and those I frequent now as a patron, share a lot of priorities with retail stores. I’ll touch on more of those in a future post, but the big one to me is – who are our target customers?

Certainly, most boutique stores have a target audience. Men’s clothing, women’s jewelry, children’s toys, to name a few generic ones. But what about, say JCPenney or Sears? These retail stores anchor pretty much every mall I’ve been in, and seem to have the same struggle as many public libraries. Who is the target audience?

Answer: Everyone. That’s part of why they still hang in there, in the age of decimated big-box stores. They offer a lot, and have a low cost-of-entry (free!). Quality products, decent service, and ease of access are definite pluses. In general, libraries provide the first two at any location, but ease of access can be harder. New constructions are expensive and polarizing in the community, and renting a normal space can have parking problems as well as watching part of the budget disappear into something the library doesn’t own.

In the case of the Otay Ranch Branch of the Chula Vista Library, the option to put a library branch near the food court of a local high-end mall wasn’t intuitive at first, but the benefits have been obvious:

The library opened in spring 2012. Its high-impact location, coupled with vibrant interiors that spill out onto the food court, garners heavy foot traffic. Parents and kids stop by for a program or materials after shopping. Tagalong spouses make a beeline for the library while their mates shop. Shoppers check their email or download a book while relaxing in the food court. No one goes home empty-handed.

Wheeled stacks, pegboard walls, and excellent sight lines provide flexibility. By matching the mall aesthetics, placing plenty of furniture outside, and offering Wi-Fi to the food court area and beyond, the space draws people in who might not otherwise visit a stand-alone library.

Benefits of the mall location are numerous. Custodial, security, and public relations services are provided by the mall. Partnerships with other tenants, i.e., the Apple Store and Barnes & Noble, provide help with ebook downloading to visitors.

Like this excerpt points out, the library benefits by drawing in customers from the food court and related retailers, which can really improve the library’s exposure and the substantiating statistics. Relationships with surrounding businesses provides benefits for both parties, whether in a mall or downtown setting.

It also reinforces the library as part of the community. Public libraries can run the risk of appearing like the white tower of academia – intimidating and forbidding to outsiders. Allowing the general public to view the library in a context they are more comfortable with can go a long way to alleviate that.

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