Not You too, Barnes & Noble…

bandnWhen I was growing up, my dad always gave me books for my birthday. Children’s books when I was little, and more literary fare when I was a teenager – books he’d read himself and loved. He worked in Manhattan and bought books home from the Barnes & Noble there. I still remember what the bags looked like (brown and white), and how excited I was knowing that inside them I would find books for me. Once or twice I actually got to go pick out my own books, in that New York City store that seemed huge. It was the seventies, before the era of the big box book retailers, so our options closer to home were limited to mall bookstores and one or two small independents.

My kids had a very different experience. Growing up in the nineties (probably the height of the big box bookstore era), they knew the joy of story time, craft projects, and negotiating with the other toddlers for the best trains on the brio table (I never saw the point in shelling out all the money for one when they could play at B&N for free). My kids were spoiled when it came to books. We’d go by every few weeks and they could pick one out – anything that wasn’t what I called a “gimmick book” (meaning it came with stickers or a toy). As far as I was concerned, Barnes & Noble and Borders were great. Great places to take your kids and browse books, great places to grab a cup of coffee and look at books for yourself.

Well, we all know what happened to Borders. This week, Barnes & Noble announced that it plans to close stores at the rate of twenty a year (even, in some cases, stores that are profitable). Ultimately, they plan to reduce their stores from 689 to 450-500. I can’t pretend that this is a complete surprise. When Borders shut their doors, I knew I was part of the problem. I read all my books electronically if I can possibly help it. I buy my kids copies of books for school, and maybe the occasional gift. I’m hardly alone. But I still spent a lot of time in Barnes & Noble. My former job was right down the street, and I enjoyed sitting in the cafe nearly every lunch hour, reading and enjoying my coffee (at least I was still buying that, right?). And I love browsing there. I honestly don’t feel like I need to hold an actual, physical book in my hands to read it, but I still like finding good reads that way. Losing stores means losing out on that experience – for a lot of people.

I’ve heard some smugness from fans of independent bookstores, people who felt that the big boxes stomped too many of the independents out of existence and are now getting what they deserve – their own death at the hands of the internet. I don’t really agree with that. In the first place, most independent bookstores were not in the suburbs. In my neck of the woods, the huge indy bookstore is Tattered Cover, which has three of its own stores. It’s a fun place to shop, but it serves a very different function, particularly if you are a romance reader. Take a look at their very small romance section, and you’ll see what I mean. Mass market readers are not their target market. The irony may be that Tattered Cover is the last store standing in this town. And as much as I enjoy going there, I can’t help but think that as a society we are losing out on a valuable shared experience.

I hope this downsizing works and that it’s not just the beginning of the end. Maybe bookstores will become more like showrooms? Because I still want to be able to go to one. I’m a good 10-15 years away from grandchildren, but I’d like to be able to take them to a children’s section of an actual bookstore one day. Somehow huddling around an iPad while they choose between electronic copies of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble or Chicka Chicka Boom Boom is not what I have in mind.

– Blythe Barnill

21 thoughts on “Not You too, Barnes & Noble…

  1. I held out until a year ago on reading paperback books. Then I purchased the Nook Tablet. I really enjoy its reading features especially font sizing, and brightness control. I even gave up my collection of bookmarkers (LOL).
    Barnes and Nobles was my go to store for book browsing and gifting.
    Am wondering if B&N can stay afloat, or if they will end up keeping online purchases only?
    Blythe, I too hope this is not the beginning of the end for a great bookstore.
    All the youngsters know today is the electronic age even in school I-pads are used as a teaching tool. But that discussion is for another time.

  2. Our indie closed a couple of yrs ago. She retired. Her biggest issues was space and who she could order from. She’d order anything and asked me all about my choices and was truly interested. But the big publishers – including hqn – wouldn’t let her buy from them. This meant some things that I would have gotten from her I had to go elsewhere. Also instead of shipping to her on release dates I’d get books weeks later. Therefore publishers are also to blame for the disappearance of the indie stores

    • Back in the 80′s my favorite book store had some of the same issues. But her problem wasn’t with publishers but with the book distributors like Ingram.

  3. I loved our Borders because it was literally across the street from where my children take classes and have choir practice. I spent several hours each week sipping coffee and reading, or studying the Romance section. (I now spend the time reading in my car or walking and listening to audiobooks if the weather is good.) When I first started reading romance books 4 or so years ago, this is where I got familiar with all the authors. All those hours spent in Borders gave me a good overview of the Romance genre. I usually bought at least one book a week. My introduction to Romance reading would have been much less satisfying without this experience.

    We’ve lost three used book stores in our area in the last two years. This has hurt even worse than losing Border’s. I was assured of great Romance sections in all three used book stores. Now the only one in the area is a good 30 minute drive and I rarely go unless I have to be in that part of town for something else.

    So, I have two B&N stores fairly near, but rarely go. I buy my used books from Better World Books online and rarely if ever buy new. I have a kindle and buy for that, but never at Agency pricing.

    Blythe, your comments about taking grandchildren to book stores made me sad. I hadn’t thought of that angle. I wonder if the picture book market will suffer if people can’t peruse the shelves. I would think that is a major way people decide what books to buy for kids–both picture books and beginner reader books, and possibly JF, too. And I agree, I have never seen the appeal of picture books on tablets, except perhaps for the ability to have a more than one in one place. I may be sentimental, but watching a child hold a tablet on his lab and “turn” the page doesn’t bring the same warm fuzzies to mind as sharing a beautifully illustrated picture book with him. I do see the potential for great interactive books for tablets and thing it’s a wonderful thing, but nothing replaces a book and a child on my lap helping me turn the pages.

  4. Indies should not be smug about B&N closing. If someone that big can’t make it, chances are the down swing will wipe them out as well.

    The last decade has been shocking to me in terms of bookstores. Our closings here began with several Indies. I did little business with them and didn’t care. Then it was Waldenbooks in the mall. Then the two Borders. From about 10 choices within a 20 mile radius I am now down to three – two UBS and B&N. I expect to loose B&N. The building is just way too huge and based on what I have seen, they just don’t have the sales for the size. I hope I am wrong. I know the locally owned UBS is struggling as well, so at some point it may just be Half-Priced books for me. I love them but I liked having the choice.

  5. I agree completely with you about losing out on serendipitous browsing. It’s the same in many public library branches as they remove books and replace them with computers.

    And I totally agree with you about Tattered Cover. I love going there, but the romance section is practically nil, so it’s not the everything bookstore that I wish it were.

    D.

  6. The idea of Barnes & Noble disappearing makes me want to cry. There is nothing like the experience of wandering through the shelves and perusing the tables of books. I’ve never gone into a B&N without leaving with at least one book, usually many more than that, often titles I’d never expected to buy. Back when I was newly married and living in downtown Chicago, my husband and I would go out to dinner and then spend an hour or two browsing at B&N – it would be an evening’s entertainment.
    But I confess to being a part of the problem. I have a Nook and now buy at least half of my reading material in e-format, especially if it’s cheaper. In fact, I went into B&N this week looking for a particular book, and when I found it only available in hardcover at twice the price, I bought the Nook version. Too, I’m a fan of Amazon where I can get any book I want with free shipping directly to my door. So how can I complain about the current situation when I contribute to it? I wish I had a solution. There aren’t even any indie book stores in my suburb, just a UBS and a religious-oriented bookstore.

    • Lynn, the browsing you mentioned came up on the news last night. Future shop and best buy are closing stores b/c people are checking out electronics at the stores and are then finding it cheaper online. Will be interesting to see if the trend continues. Zellers is gone. Target is suppose to be coming but all there is in that price range even in the bigger centres is Walmart.

  7. Blythe, while I was growing up it was Bookshop Santa Cruz. My family spent every summer in Santa Cruz and we lived at the beach on sunnydays and BSC on the cold ones. Coffee, pastries and Szechuan right next door. All my prized picture and paperback books from childhood were purchased at BSC. In the late eightes while I was at UCSC I tried over and over to get a job there, but you had to have a PHD in Books to get hired. I did get on at the college library though, go figure. BSC is still wonderful and thriving.
    After the 1989 earthquake BSC, Plaza Books, and Logos a great used/new books and record shop had to do their trade out of giant tents for a very long time. While the shopping street Pacific Ave, an old style “mall” was being reconstructed, Borders slipped in 2 blocks from BSC despite public outcry. In San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland Borders and B&N did the same thing and many indies didn’t make it. I do miss Borders they had a great romance section, but B&N can go to the devil as far as I’m concerned. Good riddance! They went after so many speciality indies like mystery and children’s bookstores and worked hard to put them out of business. I am very anti Starbucks too, for the same reasons.

    Consumers Reports did a survey asking Americans if they would spend 10 to 20% more to buy USA made goods and they said yes. That’s how I feel about indie book retailers, I’m willing to spend more and wait a little longer for books I want to read, or buy other things like greeting cards and games.

    I don’t think people browse and buy like when we were kids. It’s all about getting free wifi and a place to sit and drink coffee. Borders and Barnes & Noble became refuges for the homeless and study halls for college students. Nobody was buying books. I think the lack of support from communites are partially responsible for the loss of all bookstores. Huge rent increases, loss of lease and lack of free parking troubled all book shops on the LA westside. three Borders,one B&N and four indies were gone within a year. Made me want to cry.

    I don’t have any answers how to save our bookstores. American culture is so…..I want it NOW and with little inconvenience to my person and Amazon and other online retailers provide the service. I am guilty of this myself. I recently spent a month looking for a book and when I finally broke down and ordered it from Amazon it came within 3 days and with less tax and no shipping costs. That’s hard to ignore when considering cost.

    I thank goodness for public libraries, everywhere they are stepping up to the challenge and the more people invest in them the better they will become. My family spends time at the Santa Monica Main branch like I did with mine at Bookshop Santa Cruz, we can walk, ride bikes or take the bus and it’s really a nice place to hang out while the big indie bookstores are just too far away for an impromptu visit. There are amazing activities, movies, teen and children’s programs, author visits, this month I could get my taxes done for free at several branches if I wanted.

    In between working and writing this comment I’ve asked about this issue and for the most part unless people were big fiction readers they didn’t seem to be bothered by all the bookstore closures.
    What I heard most was “There’s always Amazon”…..heavy sigh.

    • As much as I would like to think that the libraries will fill the gap that bookstores leave, the fact is that they are turning more and more to electronic resources. And the public are not generally using the library to get their reading material. My husband, who worked in one, notes that the statistics actually show that the resources with the greatest usage are the free computers, followed by video rentals. Books take up a very small portion of the library’s budget, primarily because the demand just isn’t there.

  8. This is something that really hits home – two of our local Barnes and Nobles just closed. The romance reading group I belong to has had to relocate to a library, because the remaining stores in the area aren’t convenient. Over the last ten years we’ve had to relocate four times due to bookstores closing.

    I am still somewhat unhappy with B&N for the role they had in wiping out our local independent stores, but I will be very sad if all the bookstores close. I love the browsing, I love the news stands (I read some hard to find magazines), and as a person who collects picture books, I would never have discovered some of my favorite illustrators without the ability to browse. Libraries are great (I work in one), but it takes time for new books to land on their shelves, and new books are snapped up really fast by library patrons. Our really gigantic B&N will probably hold out the longest, but hopefully it too will not disappear any time soon. I tend to buy the new paperback releases and my magazines in the stores. (I confess, however, to buying new hardbacks by preordering online, to get the best prices.)

  9. Do people even realize that they do not even own books they buy for the kindle or nook? I refuse to pay for a book i do not even own!! Read the fine print. Also you are not able to leave your digital library to someone else. When you die, your library is deleted! So not worth it.

  10. I hate to say it but I didn’t renew my B&N membership in September b/c it’s been so long since I bought a book there. Yes, part of the problem is that I like the instant gratification of buying books on my Kindle. But part of the problem is my growing disatisfaction with my B&N experiences lately.

    I used to be able to sometimes find a book out at B&N before its release date. That stopped happening. Disappointing but understandable. But then I’d go in on the release day for a book I was excited about and it wouldn’t be out on the shelves. So I have to ask a salesperson about it, which I really just hate doing. Sometimes the book just hadn’t been put out yet, but sometimes B&N didn’t even have it in yet. Considering that I have to drive 30 minutes to get to my B&N, I stopped wasting my gas trying to buy in paperback what I can get on my Kindle – especially since there was no guarentee that I would even find it.

  11. I bought a Nook instead of a Kindle because I wanted to support a real store. Ironic, I know. I only use my Nook when I travel or want to read something I can’t read in book form because the print is too small. I still buy all of my gift books from Barnes & Noble, and purchased several gift certificates from them for Christmas presents. But I do buy out of print books from Better World Books, and also buy used books from my local library to support our children’s section. Going to Barnes & Noble is how I like to spend my “me time,” and I always buy something. I can’t justify purchasing very many new hardcover books, but I still buy a lot of paperbacks and softcover books from Barnes & Nobel to hopefully do my part to keep them in business.

    I can’t imagine a world where children can’t pick out new books in a beautiful bookstore. Discount stores just don’t hold the same magic. I hope closing some stores will save Barnes & Noble, and that people will shop there enough to keep them in business.

    • My sons gave me a Nook this year and I do enjoy the availability of books published only in ebook format, but I try to buy as many 3-dimensional books as I can. I like to browse. I find a lot more books through serendipity (Julia Quinn because she is shelved near Amanda Quick is an example) when I troll the shelves than when I go online. Online, however, is a wonderful resource for the directed search when a book is OOP or by a midlist author not carried by B&N. I also like to support local jobs that allow for workers to be more than mere robots — read an article in yesterday’s Financial Times about an Amazon distribution center in England that put me off buying from them if I can help it. In an ideal world we’d have Internet, UBS, and brick-and-mortar book stores, but I’m afraid that the future will have only online book sourcing and will be lesser for it.

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