My last post concerned a crime against the humanities; this one concerns the expected demise of Barnes & Noble
Despite being the only remaining national chain physical bookstore in the USA, and having a near-monopoly on shelf space, Barnes & Noble can’t make money selling bad coffee, embarrassing trinkets, and an occasional book so it’s closing more stores. CEO William Lynch has resigned and, according to USA Today, Barnes & Noble is not planning to name a successor any time soon. If ever. In fact, according to Bloomberg, it isn’t looking for one. CFO Michael Huseby will be president, reporting to Leonard Riggio, the largest shareholder. The company has also announced that it is going to stop making Nook color tablets.
One problem is that Barnes & Noble can’t make money when the few remaining readers who actually shop there hoping to find something worth reading check out books online and buy them at home. “Showrooming,” it’s called. Indie bookstores have the same problem. So do lots of other brick and mortar stores.
I don’t know what it’s called if you hear about an interesting read and simply buy it on line in the first place. Perhaps the “free market” where consumers shop for the lowest price on a good. I assume that a publicly owned corporation like Barnes & Noble would support that concept in any other context.
Some are arguing that the death of Barnes & Noble will result in the death of the industry, including eventually the death of Amazon, because Amazon benefits from people “discovering” books at Barnes & Noble.
I can’t get worked up about this. I wish I could, because I wish Barnes & Noble still mattered. But the fact is, I haven’t “discovered” a new book through Barnes & Noble in a really long time. I remember when spending an afternoon browsing through their selections was a choice way to spend hours. Then something happened.
This is purely anecdotal, but it probably matches the experiences of a lot of readers. The stores got louder. They went from dignified havens in which the book reading public could retreat and explore new books, to glorified cafes, replete with live music and lots of chatter. They became self-styled “community centers” rather than bookstores. This is from their website:
We pioneered the concept of a retail store as a community center . . . Our relationship with Starbucks is a key reason why Barnes & Noble is such a popular coffeehouse destination across the U.S. And more importantly, an integral part of the Barnes & Noble experience that keeps our customers coming back again and again.
So right there, Barnes & Noble began to think the way to keep customers coming back was to offer them a different product than the one that attracted them in the first place.
Starbucks, which has always been something of a jokey haven for pseudo-intellectuals who like to write Important Stuff on their laptops in public so people can notice how cool they are, has turned Barnes & Noble into another jokey haven for pseudo-intellectuals. The problem is, if you have cultivated a customer base of book readers since 1917, and now feel that to expand your audience you need to emphasize a different product, you are doing something really wrong.
I’m a customer. I can drink coffee at home. Until Amazon, I couldn’t find new books at home. So B&N, it’s the books that used to bring readers like me into your store.
I remember a time when you could quietly browse those books. Then, as the atmosphere changed, quiet went right out. Parents started bringing screaming babies and toddlers into the store and using the place as a babysitter. Did the management respect the original clientele by asking people to not disturb the reading customers? Hell, no. They enhanced the children’s section to encourage noise and expanded the “community center” concept to include families and exclude actual book buying customers.
The link is to a story about an Arizona Barnes & Noble that threw an elderly gentleman out of the store because he had the poor judgment to be shopping for books for his grandsons in the children’s section while being male. The poor guy was asked by an employee if he’d “heard about kids being molested in bookstores.” He was told that men were not allowed to be in the children’s section “by themselves.” He was escorted out. So, here’s an educated reader (the unfortunate 73 year old grandfather, Dr. Omar Amin, is the “director of the Parasitology Center Inc. in Scottsdale and an expert in infectious diseases”) attempting to foster a love of reading in his grandchildren and he gets the boot.
But you can bet Dr. Amin is going to think twice about returning, when he can buy books from Amazon with far less unwarranted embarrassment and gender profiling. So – screaming toddlers disturbing reading customers is fine, but don’t you dare be a male buying books to help educate your grandchildren or you will be treated like a criminal. This single incident, for which Vice President Mark Bottini has apologized, has wider significance. It’s redolent of the kind of politically correct, knee jerky, unimaginative corporatized parlor “bookstore” Barnes & Noble has become, and of how far the general atmosphere in these stores has moved away from reading.
So Barnes & Noble doesn’t offer quiet book browsing space anymore, which is one of the reasons people like me used to go there.
Then there’s the role they play with publishers. A lot of writers and readers don’t know this, but Barnes & Noble is partly responsible for the decline in quality books that has become so apparent in the last 20 years. That’s because for an editor to sell a novel in house, he or she has to get the Barnes & Noble fiction buyer on board. This individual decides which novels Barnes & Noble will stock, and therefore pretty much gets veto power over what kind of fiction gets published. Barnes & Noble is a public company, so it cares about sales potential, not quality. Naturally, this means that sophisticated stuff is right out, and 8th grade reading level pabulum that doesn’t challenge anybody is right in, further alienating the original customer base.
And then there’s the godawful attitude of the employees. Customers don’t enjoy being sneered at for their purchases. Books are highly personal items, so sensitive bookish bluestockings like me like it even less. My last visit to a Barnes & Noble was when I asked a twenty-something behind the counter if she could order me a copy of Plutarch’s Lives, and said that I was interested in an edition that included his biography of Alexander the Great. The supercilious twenty-something whose job it is to help customers find the kind of books they are interested in, to recommend books to the customers, insisted there was no such thing, never heard of it, and exchanged snobby looks and head shakes with another employee, who hadn’t heard of it either. And then pointedly moved on to another customer because my poor request clearly annoyed her.
So you know, I ordered it from Amazon, where there is a lovely selection of exactly what I was looking for.
Oh, sure I could have bought it on line from Barnes & Noble, but undergoing a kind of public shaming at the physical store for wishing to read Plutarch was such a miserable experience I chose not to. Just so you know, B&N. By the way, does that count as showrooming?
Uh, B&N, this is why you lose customers. It isn’t Amazon, it isn’t the long tail, it isn’t showrooming, it’s you. The only thing you might be able to offer “showrooming” readers anymore is a great reading atmosphere, knowledgeable courteous staff that truly cares about matching readers with what they might like, and books chosen for quality that readers can’t easily find or learn about elsewhere. All intangible, human type stuff that public corporations simply aren’t set up to provide. But when your own damn staff laughs at people for requesting a classic of ancient literature and throws innocent old men out on their ass for attempting to buy books for their grandchildren, the problem is you.
And here’s the irony. Barnes & Noble has been driving the compartmentalization of literature for years, exerting pressure on authors to only write in one genre, so their books can be shelved in the same section of the bookstore, and to never mix genres, because Barnes & Noble is too ham fisted to sell books to readers that don’t fit a neat marketing category (particularly if they can’t hire knowledgeable staff). So perhaps Barnes & Noble should follow it’s own lead. Stop mixing business genres, decide which “genre” it wants to be in, and which section of market space it wants to occupy. If you want to be a bookstore – be a goddamned bookstore, focus on the book readers, and accept that smaller is better. Hire staff that is stellar at matching books to readers. You have a goddamned monopoly right now – you can do it.
If you want to “mix genres” and be all sorts of things to all sorts of people: play centers, community centers, coffee houses, useless gift shops – well keep swaying around in the wind because right now you really aren’t anything at all. That’s the real reason you’re closing stores and losing money.
Choose an identity, be that identity, and you’ll attract your base again.
Go private. Drop the damn shareholders who have robbed you of your original identity. Stop driving the publishing industry, and allow the acquisition editors to do their job without interference. Be smaller and focused. Be a “community center” for what remains of literary culture. Stop being a shill for Starbucks and stupid toys and cutesy novelty “books” and stop being afraid of excluding people. Real reading is elitist; if you still want to be in the book business, get used to it.
So, here’s hoping that somebody out there will buy those closed stores, run them like real bookstores, convey a tone that reading and learning matter, and basically kick your butt by filling a much needed space in the market. I’d be first in line to shop at those stores. That would get me out to a physical store again.
Or listen to Praveen Madan, president of Kepler’s Books, who said in a recent Wall Street Journal article:
If I were in their shoes, I would deepen the commitment to a broader stock of books, to displaying and promoting books from small presses and university presses. They should also be more involved with local schools and libraries. They may have to run fewer, smaller stores, but that’s how to do it. There is absolutely a place for them if they embrace the commitment to books and ideas. But if they are a profit first, general retailer, then I don’t think there is a place for them.
Be a bookstore! Or don’t, and former customers like me will drink coffee at home in more comfortable chairs while buying books through Amazon.