Wednesday, May 14, 2014

…are we reading the last chapter for Barnes & Noble?

The rumor has it that Barnes & Noble will be no more after 2014. The stores will be closed, employees laid off, and the company that was the cause of small American bookstores being driven to extinction will join its former rivals.

Like many a casualty of technology, B&N was a company that ran just a bit slow in catching up with the changing habits of consumers., which for several years operated in the red until it became the go-to shopping experience, has changed the business of shopping for books, or most anything else, for that matter.

I was a part-time bookstore employee for four years in the late seventies-early eighties in a full-service store that started as a head shop. Our customers treated the store as if it were almost a holy place. I know from personal experience how much bookstores mean for their loyal customers.

I was shocked when Cody’s Books in Berkeley, California, went out of business in 2008. That was a bellwether, because like the store where I worked, Cody’s was more than a bookstore. It was an institution, and world famous. A chill wind blew across the bookselling landscape when that happened. When bookstores started to have problems in a changing retail world the locally owned bookstores were the first to feel the effects.

I think my own experience with the chain booksellers is shared by other customers. I found that certain titles were discounted, but most of the books I wanted were not.

And I didn’t realize I was in on this trend early on: In 1998 I saw the book, Wondrous Strange, The Wyeth Tradition, featuring the art of the Wyeth family, at Barnes & Noble, but balked at the $45 price. I got an idea to check it on and see if I could get it cheaper. I could and did. That deadly action, multiplied thousands and maybe hundreds of thousands or even millions of times over the past few years by other B&N and Borders customers is what has sunk traditional bricks and mortar bookstores. 

The success story begat other online businesses that lured shopping dollars away from walk-in stores with high overheads.

As a society I wonder how much of this we will be able to absorb until everyone just stays home and buys everything they need online until the whole retail industry becomes a ghost town of empty stores and unemployed store clerks.

I look back on the pre-Internet era with a newfound sense of nostalgia. Christmas shopping was never fun for me, in fact I hated it. But it was a diversion during the season to do actual shopping in actual stores. Especially bookstores like several local booksellers that have since closed their doors, B. Dalton, a bookseller now gone, if I was at a mall. In that season I was around people with a common purpose. There was a feeling in the air, the completion of a yearly ritual, done the same way it had been done for generations. How wondrous strange I feel for admitting that.

It is a lot more convenient to just sit at home or the office and with a few strokes of a keyboard complete one’s Christmas shopping, (and a hell of a lot safer than charging into Walmart at midnight on Black Friday with hundreds of bargain-seekers). But it is a tragedy for those businesses that have fallen as a result of changing buying habits of their former customers, and a loss for a decades-old way of life for shoppers.


Kirk said...

The whole buying things online phenomenon truly puzzles me. How is any different from a mail order house? Those existed long before the Internet without having any effect on brick-and-mortar stores. One mail-order house, Sears and Roebuck, had their own brick and mortar stores. What's the difference? I'm told buying things online is cheaper, but why any cheaper than sending away for something you saw in an ad in the back of a magazine? Just asking.

Postino said...

Good question, Kirk. And the quick answer is I don't know. But I suspect it has something to do with the convenience of the technology: no writing a check, no finding an envelope and a stamp, etc.

My wife is an shopper. She is always looking for things she can't find in stores. It's a long story but several times she has come to me and said, "I looked all over town for (the item) and couldn't find it, and GOOD OLD AMAZON.COM! As usual, they had it." So now she goes to good old before even looking elsewhere.