Over at bookriot.com (one of the coolest new sites on the web), Peter Damien posted some suggestions for Barnes and Noble about revitalizing their failing business model. His suggestions aren’t particularly good, and it’s likely that implementing his ideas would actually hasten the demise of BN. He wants to get rid of the calendars, the toys, and the Starbucks. He wants BN to open small stores in shopping malls.
On a nostalgic level, I sympathize with these ideas. I remember a day when bookstores actually carried books. I fondly remember when I was a child browsing B. Dalton with my parents. But there are reasons why those days are over, and no bookseller will turn a profit by returning to them. Instead of offering alternate opinions for how to save BN, I have a different idea.
Let’s just let the bookstore die.
I know. It’s heresy for a book lover to say such things, but we all need to take a deep breath and get some perspective. First, we love books more than we love bookstores. Second, we haven’t always loved BN.
Once upon a time, we bought books at independent bookshops. These shops were few and far between, and if you were lucky enough to stumble across one, you’d find that the selection was rather limited. You’d just read whatever they happened to have. Then came the dark days of the 1970s that made true book lovers long for the dingy bookshop. In the 1970s B. Dalton and Waldenbooks opened a small bookstore in every shopping mall in America. Independent bookshops started going out of business because of this new flashy competition. True book-lovers complained because the mall bookstores were too corporate and their selection was limited to a few mass-marketed bestsellers. But more Americans had access to a bookstore than ever before. Then in the mid-1980s, the bookstore behemoth began to swallow up the book-retail industry. This behemoth went by the name Barnes and Noble. Their stores were massive, filled with a greater selection than the smaller shops could offer. And coffee! We could buy coffee while we browsed the books! Paradise at last! Not for the book lover. We complained that BN was even more corporate than the mall stores. It was killing off the independent bookshops even more quickly. It was selling books at too deep a discount. It would ruin the publishing industry. Anyone remember the 1998 movie, You’ve Got Mail? The big-box bookstore was evil. Now we’re brainstorming and blogging in an attempt to save Barnes and Noble. Ironic.
We shed tears for the big-box bookstore because a more dangerous foe to all things literary looms large. Amazon. Its so big and corporate that you can’t even see it. It’s threatening to destroy books and publishing by selling books too cheaply. Oh wait, we’ve used that one before.
In fact, book lovers have previously offered every reason to avoid Amazon and every reason to buy from BN with different protagonists and antagonists. We’re so myopic. Why in the world do we care about the bookstore? It’s really the books that we love, and guess what? Books are alive and well. Every time the book-retail industry has changed, book sales have gone up. Every time the industry shifted, access improved, selection improved, and price improved.
Every time the industry shifts “true” book lovers grumble. Life has never been better for readers, but we’re still complaining. I’ve decided that book lovers just enjoy complaining. Hence my advice.
Let the bookstore “go gentle into that good night.” Amazon offers what the reading public wants, a better selection and a better price. Will Amazon dominate the book market for eternity? Probably not. If the recent pattern holds, in about ten years another method of getting books in the hands of readers will swallow up Amazon.
And the independent bookstore? In spite of forty years of industry upheaval, you can still find them. They might be fewer and farther between, but they’ve proven more resilient than their supporters have given them credit for.