The other day, it finally occurred to me, and when I saw Tim O'Reilly's recent post about publisher ecosystems and the closing of Borders I thought I should post my thoughts on the topic. I suspect that many people love physical stores for the same reason, but can't quite put their finger on why.
Ok, so short answer: physical stores have a greater selection.
Yes, I understand that that's absurd, but it's actually true in a sense. The online stores that I use tend to have vastly larger selections. In fact, the smaller and more specialized they are, the larger their selections are within those niches. The Paizo store, for example, has the broadest supply of Paizo Publishing products that I know of (kind of obviously). So, why would I go to a store to look for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook? Well, I wouldn't, but when I want to browse, that's another story.
Browsing online is fun, in that I can navigate through items quickly without having to stoop over and look at the bottom shelf or otherwise contort myself to find cool things, but there's a shift in the power dynamic. In a physical store, the vendor puts everything they want to sell out on the shelves. Sometimes they might put out dummy items (like empty DVD cases), but in terms of browsing, I have everything right there to look at, and I can look at whatever I want, regardless of what the vendor wants me to buy (e.g. what has the highest margin, or what wholesale vendor they're trying to bump up to a larger order size). Sure, they can strategically place items in end-caps and on eye-level shelves, but ultimately I'm going to look where I want for what I want.
In an online store, the vendor decides what I'll see unless I do extremely specific searches. There might be items that they have for sale that, due to a desire to steer customers elsewhere or oversight, I'll never see. In fact, I can't know what all the books for sale on Amazon are at any given time. There's no master list that I know of, and certainly no wall of titles that I can just glance over and let whatever grabs my eye do so.
It's this subtle shift in the power dynamic where the online retailer isn't required to show me everything that's "on the showroom floor" that I instinctively dislike about online shopping. Maybe the last book on the end of the bottom shelf was just the one I was looking for, but would never have remembered the title or author.
Of course, when it comes to books, I can pick up a book in a bookstore and glance through the entire thing. Online, vendors simply can't get publishers to agree to such a thing (heck, they never would have agreed to it in physical stores if customers were willing to buy sealed books... but they're not).