Friday, January 13, 2012

The Future of Barnes and Noble?

I was somewhere in my early twenties when a Barnes and Noble opened in Vorhees NJ. I was probably a year out of the Army and was probably just getting around to going out with my Mom on a book hunting expedition like we'd done when I was younger. There's no doubt I inherited a love of reading and books from good ole' Mom an although our tastes varied severely we both enjoyed going to bookstores and libraries together. A Borders opened around the same time in the same part of South Jersey, I forget which was actually first, and I still recall hearing about them first when I was overseas in Germany.

"Oh Dave, you have to check this store out. It's ten  times the size of the B.Dalton and Waldenbooks! You're going to love it!""

And when I got home we did go and it was amazing. Aisle after aisle of sci-fi, fantasy and military books. Virtually every single thing King, Clancy, Rice or Heinlen had ever written. Magazines I didn't even know existed. As a young, idealistic Communications Major at a local Community College dreaming of transferring to a 4 year school with a "big" film program I was able to actually touch, buy and read the fabled magazines called Variety and Hollywood Reporter.

I discovered Science Fiction Age Magazine there and fell deeply in love with its magnificently illustrated pages and would later subscribe to it for four years before their demise. I had read King's "The Dark Tower" in High School and was completely blown away by it. While I had heard of follow up novels I'd never seen them overseas (real small Army Exchange in Budingen, pre-internet folks) but I finally found them in the massive, sprawling aisles of these book cathedrals. I held the gleaming, brilliant paperbacks of "The Drawing of the Three" and "The Wastelands" and was truly happy.

They were (and can still be) wondrous places for readers and book lovers but times have very clearly changed. In the wake of the demise of Borders (which usually is of extreme benefit to a direct competitor) B&N is clearly on the rocks.           

The Wall Street Journal released an online article discussing how B&N is seeking "the next chapter", both a play on words regarding them as a book store and cynical predictions that B&N is doomed to follow Borders into a Chapter 13 demise.

Quick tangent: Flash forward some 18 odd years since that first trip to a B&N and my family had moved to Baltimore MD in 2007. We had our third child soon thereafter and although my Navy Officer salary was very nice there was little dough to spare. I had for years been in the habit of buying my books off Amazon, usually "used" ones. This practice rubs some authors the wrong way because the used book seller and not the author profits but one book or a tree maybe? Don't throw stones folks. In short, I generally did not go into the local B&N and there was no local Borders.

Just before this past Christmas my older daughter had a Girl Scout function where they were wrapping presents in stores. One night I took her to the B&N, realizing it was the first time in about two years I had been in one. I had heard and read about how the retailer had changed up their store scheme. And then I saw it for myself.

Aisle after aisle of mugs, stuffed animals, nick-nacks and decorative desk top crap.

The giant, three aisle Lego display was pretty cool but they didn't have the deluxe Millenium Falcon though.

Basically, they had about a third less book space then they'd traditionally had.  

I had a B&N gift card burning a hole in my pocket for about a year, the previous X-mas, so I did pick up some crisp, new books, something I said I no longer did regularly.

The picture here is, obviously, from the New Yorker and I don't think it takes an analyst to deduce that they're parodying the current B&N store makeup. Credit where credit is due: I first saw this cover on Kris Rusch's page and she makes an interesting point that B&N regularly advertises in the New Yorker (pays their bills) yet the NY'er couldn't resist taking a poke at them.

I guess they felt that strongly about it.

I think the marginalization of their book space (which is supposed to build retail sales) is but a symptom of the bigger problem. Poor and increasingly lower paper sales. Nook is a good seller but the WSJ article highlights how B&N is now admitting, in addition to poor paper sales, that their investment in the Nook technology (which I imagine was substantial) is not quite paying off for them, especially not in the face of brutal, exploding Amazon competition.

In short there's trouble on the horizon. If B&N were to go under that would leave roughly 200 Books-A-Million stores, a smaller retailer call Atlantic Books and your mom-and-pop store, unless I missed any others.

Like I said: 2012 is the year of change. The year to watch.

Good times


  1. Interesting. Sad but exciting, too...what will happen next and all that.

  2. Yeah, sad. I'm anything but a DIE-PAPER-DIE pundit, I love books as much as anyone but we're looking at a cultural change. The kind that can't be stopped.

    Between tight pocketbooks from the recession (I've bought only a few 25$ hardbacks in my whole life) and an all digital generation growing up I think paper's demise will happen a lot quicker than many predict.

  3. I think there will always be a market, be it small, for print books. But you're right - this year is going to be a huge change for the industry. I can feel it.