A trip to the bookstore

Sorry I’m late getting this up this morning. After more than a week of what can only be called a writing marathon, I had to come up for air, look around and return to the real world yesterday. There were bills to be paid, a couple of meetings to be had and a yard to be mowed. Today isn’t going to be any better writing-wise. The laundry is started and pretty soon I’m going to have to do a quick clean before a grocery store run. Then it’s off to pick my mother up at the airport after her yearly jaunt to the North. So, if the post is a little disjointed, I hope you’ll forgive me. My head is still working on the current work in progress even though the rest of me is doing more mundane things.

One of my meetings yesterday was at the local Barnes & Noble. This was the first time I’d been in the store in two months or so. One reason I hadn’t been there for awhile is simple: this store was one of those B&N built several years ago (probably five or six years ago) when the company was in its superstore phase. The store it replaced was less than a mile from this one and across the freeway from the local mall. The old store was nothing special on the exterior but inside you knew it was a bookstore. As you walked in, you saw books and magazines. The cafe was off to the side but basically hidden by the magazine area and half walls lined with books. Computer games and related items were through a side door, part of the store but separate. There was a feel to the old B&N that was warm and welcoming. You were greeted with smiles and nods from those who worked there and they knew their stock. It was, in short, a bookstore. Almost as important was the ease of getting in and out of the store. Because it was across the freeway from the mall, you didn’t have to deal with all the traffic. In and out or stay as long as you wanted. That B&N fit your needs.

I knew when the owners of the mall started developing another retail area next to the mall things would change. The strip mall where the B&N was located seemed to be struggling. Then word came out that the store would be relocating into the new area as one of the anchors. I wasn’t happy but I understood. Any retail store with a physical footprint relies on foot traffic for that impulse customer. Being part of a more vibrant shopping area could only help the bookstore. So I hitched up my big girl pants and decided I could weather the increased traffic in order to get my book fix.

The new store had all the glitz and shine of any of the new B&N superstores. But gone was the warm feeling. The new floor plan wasn’t conducive to author readings, especially if more than one author was involved. It felt too commercial, too crowded. Add in the increased traffic and the fact it was much more difficult to get to off the freeway and, well, my trips to the store became more and more less frequent.

For the last two years, those trips became almost non-existent. Yes, part of the reason is Amazon. Most of my reading these days is done via e-books. But there are still physical books I want because there are certain authors whose books I collect. But our local Half Price Books, less than half the distance from my house than the B&N carries new books as well — and I don’t have to buy a membership to get lower prices there. So why face the aggravation of getting to B&N, finding a parking space and probably not finding the book I wanted anyway because the book selection seemed so much less extensive than it had been at the old store?

Then came the push for the physical stores to sell the Nook. In this particular B&N, the moment you open the door and step inside, you’re not greeted with the newest books to hit the shelves. Nope. You’re greeted with a kiosk dedicated to the Nook and then row after row of Nook accessories. To my mind — which I admit is more than a bit warped — that seemed like B&N was shooting themselves in the foot. At a time when sales from their physical bookstores were falling, corporate had those same stores pushing a device that encouraged readers NOT to come in.

BLINK.

Because I’ve been critical in the past about the way B&N has handled not only the e-book side of their business but also the physical store side, I was curious to see if any changes had been made over the last few months. I wasn’t encouraged when I stepped into the airlock. You know what I mean: those few short feet between the doors leading outside and those leading into the store. This particular B&N has always used that space as a clearance bin. Books on deep discount are displayed there. It was no different yesterday. Worse, it seemed like there was more space dedicated to pushing books folks hadn’t been buying that making it easy to get inside the store. It felt cramped and not really inviting.

Then I stepped inside and paused, looking around. The Nook kiosk was still there. One or two models of the Nook were there for customers to try but no one was in the kiosk to answer questions or to even call people over to try to get them interested in the e-book readers. But there was a change. Small, yes, but a change nonetheless. There wasn’t as much space devoted to Nook accessories.

The problem was that the freed up space wasn’t devoted to books either. In fact, looking around it appeared as if there were fewer displays but that shelf space hadn’t increased. So the store was less crowded — always a good thing because you want your customers to be able to move around — but still without the book inventory the old store used to carry.

So I checked out the rest of the store. Standing just inside the front entrance, looking to the back of the store, the first thing to catch your eye is the Nook display and accessories. At the back of store, under a large sign, is the music department. If there’s anything in between, I don’t remember it.

And that is the problem. B&N is supposed to be, first and foremost, a bookstore. Yet, when you enter, you don’t get that feel. You see the e-book readers and everything you might want to go with it. Then the signage draws your attention to music. Where are the New Releases or Best Sellers? Where’s the Mystery or Romance or Science Fiction section? Where are all the wonderful new non-fiction books?

In this store, they are off to the side or along the back of the store, just before you get to the music department, intermixed with displays for board games and cards and who knows what else.

I was pleased when I made my way to the cafe to recognize the woman who served me. She’s one of the managers of the store and has been with B&N since long before the new store opened. She’s one of the dying breed of employees in such stores — someone who loves books and is knowledgeable about her stock. But that joy was a bit overshadowed by concern. I arrived at the lunch hour and yet the cafe was only half full. This despite the fact the parking lot outside was fairly full. That meant people were shopping — but not at B&N.

That bothered me more than I thought it would and I found myself thinking about that as well as the store during the course of the evening. I think the problem B&N faces is that it is in an identity crisis. Most people still think of it as a bookstore. But when you walk in, that’s not the feel you get. People passing by see the posters in the windows for the newest “It” book and yet, once inside, there is no distinct and easily seen display where they can grab the book. Worse, there are no displays between that area and the cash register where more impulse book buying can be had.

Add to that the fact that the superstores might not be the way to go right now. Bigger isn’t always better. Perhaps it is time for corporate to rethink their business plan and return to smaller stores. Locate them near but not necessarily on mall property. Give readers incentives to come to the store and make the stores as inviting to local reading and writing groups. Let them hold their meetings in the cafe or near it. Think about it. Become part of the community.

As writers, we need to think about the same thing. Just as the exterior windows of B&N promise customers certain things — the latest best seller by Stephen King or the newest CD by Pink or the latest DVD starring  Bruce Willis — our book covers should clue our readers into what the book is about. There should be certain clues to the cover design that tells your reader if your e-book is fantasy or military SF, romance or humor. What brought this to mind was looking at books online last night and seeing how some publishers are “branding” lines with covers that are so similar to one another that I had to check the title and author to make sure they weren’t listing the same title over and over again. Similar cover themes are all right but not if they are so similar the reader/buyer thinks they’ve already bought the book. (Ask Sarah about how too similar covers helped kill one of her series.)

Back to the original topic. The trip to B&N reminded me how much I miss neighborhood bookstores. I cheer the news that more and more indie bookstores are cropping up around the nation and are not only surviving but thriving. I anxiously await one coming to my area. How about the rest of you?

25 comments

  1. Spot on.
    Our local ‘bookstore’ is Hastings, and about a third of the store is DVD rentals, a third is CD and music accessory sales, and the remaining third is books. Almost half of those are heavily discounted ‘used’ books and overstocks. There is a large section devoted to magazines. As a sop to readers, there are a few tables where you might once have had a free cup of coffee, but the coffee is gone and only the tables and cafe-style chairs remain. There are a couple of overstuffed chairs spotted near the books. And that’s it.
    Of the new books, you get the bestsellers.
    If you want something that’s not a bestseller or local interest acquisition, they’ll order it for you. But not at any discounted price, of course. And there may be a shipping charge. Time to wait, usually two weeks or longer.
    Amazon has a wider selection and is cheaper and faster.
    It’s fair to describe this not as a bookstore, but as a music store or a DVD rental store, with a few books there too.
    Amanda, it may be that bookstores aren’t doing enough to compete. Or perhaps they can’t.
    For the few who’ve loved them, real bookstores may be forced to go the way of the buggy-whip manufacturers.
    Fortunately, there are still libraries.
    For now.

    1. I think bookstores can survive, but only if they redefine themselves. We’re seeing a return of the locally owned bookstores. Smaller, more apt to cater to local interests and that often focus on one or two genres, these stores are starting to thrive again. Smaller stores mean smaller overhead. They also tend to hire people who know the stock and who love books. I’m hoping this is one trend that continues.

  2. The regional B&N is still bookish, so to speak. You walk in and hit the Nook kiosk, with Legos and puzzles behind it, but books sprawl out and the rest of the place is more book store than “stuff.” I preferred to buy from Hastings HQ store when I was in town, but they’re remodeling and what I did not see were shelves. I get the sense that the book people are migrating back to B&N despite the prices. Which is too bad, because Hastings has/had more sci-fi/ fantasy and history than B&N. So Amazon will keep getting a chunk of my business, it seems. The local used-book places seem heavy on romances and big-name sci-fi, the times I’ve poked my nose in, except for one shop that has first editions and western history, and knows what they are worth (alas!).

    1. I think people are migrating back to B&N because there is no other alternative in so many areas. I just wish they would decide if they are a bookstore or a music store or an everything store.

  3. I can’t help but compare to Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego and my most recent visit to a B&N in that area. The SoCal B&N was pretty similar to your description. They had all the not book stuff as you came in and you had to get through that and past the cafe(? or am I confusing B&Ns?) to get to the real books. Once you got there there was a reasonable selection that I coudl see – plenty of Baen for example – but then given the enormous USN and USMC presence in San Diego county you’d expect demoand for Baen and Baenlike books.

    But having said that the SFF section as a whole wasn’t that big and certaibly seemed smaller than it was when I went to the same store a few years ago.

    Mysterious Galaxy on the other hand is a pretty small shop. I’m amazed at how they manage to cram peple in for signings. But it has specialized in SFF and mystery (the name’s a bit of a give away…) and so the choice of authors is way better. Moreover the people inthe store know the books and the authors so you get help and suggestions and all that sort of thing. The books are generally not sold with much (if any) of a discount, but they have some kind of membership scheme that I think will give me some credits sometime. Moreover I’m happy to pay full whack because they make it worthwhile by suggesting stuff. It seems to me that MG is generaly busier than B&N – at least in terms of traffic/sq ft of floorspace. I hope that continues.

    1. I have no problem paying full price or close to it — if the store makes it worth my while. By hiring staff who love books and who read and will make recommendations, that makes it worth the drive to go to the store and pay the full price. I think that is something too many of the corporate suits have forgotten.

  4. What I want is a return to local distributors who know their local preferences. I used to hit three or four wide-spread small convenience stores because _that_ one always carried pulp reprints in their spinner racks. _This_ one carried SF. The other one carried . . . OK, it was work, but I was a teenager with a bicycle. And I found what I wanted to read.

    I’m hoping that the Indie stores will carry a bigger variety, so the choice will return. Of course, out here in the boonies, it’ll always be a long drive for me. Any anyone’s guess how I’ll find them in the first place.

    1. Yes. The big box stores did not only their customers but also their stockholders a disservice when they went away from local and regional ordering. It reminds me of when the city council was considering outsourcing the library. At that time, there was only one company in the US that did that kind of outsourcing. When they came to make their presentation to the city council, one of their selling points was that they’d save the city money because they were like Walmart — they ordered the same books in bulk for all the libraries in their system, no matter where the library might be. The guy doing the presentation seemed genuinely surprised when folks spoke up and said they didn’t want a Walmart-like library. They wanted a library keyed to the community’s wants and needs, not something cobbled together based on what someone a thousand miles away might want.

  5. I have been an SF reader since Mrs Pennington, the world’s best librarian, poked a copy of Rocket Ship Galileo in front of my ten year old face in roughly 1964.

    I loved books.

    “Loved” because I’m now a Kindle App guy on my ‘Droid.

    I used to go into B&N and the local library frequently, just to see what was new. Now, I don’t. I rely on … well the internet to find new books. Baen.com, instapundit, Scalzi’s frustratingly excellent website and so forth. You guys here.

    I used to have a B&N reader card. Now I don’t. I’ve bought well over 50 books in the last two years and all of them have been ebooks. With a smart phone, your book is always in your pocket for when you have 5 minutes of empty time. It keeps your place. It’s a little speed reading device that encourages a fast eye scan.

    Love the things.

    So, if it’s up to guys like me…B&N is toast.

    Geoff Whisler

    1. As I said earlier, most of my reading is now done via e-books. But I do still buy some printed books and I like to go into a store do it. There are business plans out there that would help bookstores find a happy medium between selling printed books and selling e-books. It is something a lot of the indie bookstores have been looking into and helping develop. Unfortunately, it isn’t something the big box stores have been all that interested in doing, at least not until it was too late.

  6. I disagree with you about superstores. I think that super book stores are a great idea. In this general area Powells is still going strong. The problem is when it is not a superstore, but a department store that has less of any one thing than a smaller speciality store. At that point, Amazon, or the indie stores, take over.

    1. Powells is the exception to the rule. It is a local bookstore of large dimensions. It also was quick to adapt to internet sales and then to e-book sales. If the big box bookstores would base their business plan on Powells, things would be a lot better for them, imo. The problem is that they won’t or can’t and so they are floundering, trying to figure out just what sort of store they really are.

  7. When I was little, my mother was a librarian. This was awesome, because books! This was rather less so, because she later quit to become a teacher and I didn’t get to go as often (and didn’t get the inside track on what they stocked anymore. Crap). Then, as Pam mentioned, I got a bicycle and discovered the mall. Life was good again.

    Then the mall killed my bookstore. There might have been some nerd rage, save for the fact that I left for college not too long after. Unfortunately for me, my paperback collection was looking rather the worse for wear. But I discovered college bookstores, and all was right with the world again.

    Predictably, the college bookstore tanked. This was in the early 2000s. I discovered B&N just in time for the remodeling, darnit. Two months without new books. Things have been going back and forth like this for as long as I can remember.

    Remember when you first heard the term, “dead tree books”? Tell me there’s not some loaded language there, considering how the hoi polloi have taken to the greenie thing. So yes, I think there’s more factors than ebooks just being darn convenient. Oh and the fumbling response of publishing houses and the bookstores themselves to the concept of ebooks, on the other side.

    If bookstores go away, as they seem to be doing, I will be sad. They provided darn near the perfect job for the bibliophile (save that you had to actually sell things). Losing the place you could go to find other readers, odds though they may well be, is not a happy thought either.

    The time may well come when they are as antiquated as having a dedicated library room in the home- not that I plan to give up on that particular dream myself, but the next generation? Will the word “library” go the way “mail” has? Who can know?

    New technologies force changes in behavior on us. But, human beings being who they are, I think we’ll find a workaround somehow. Today we have the internet to bring the reader-type odds together all across the globe, and while it won’t replace a good coffee while I sit and read where other folks like me do the same, this way I get to sit and do my reading and conversing in my pajamas if I want to and no one else the wiser. *grin*

    1. Your comments brought back a lot of memories for me. I miss the days of really good bookstores or of having an inside track into what the new books were in the library. I think we’ll have bookstores for a long time yet. But most of them will be used bookstores and, hopefully, indie stores. I’m not sure the big chains will be able to survive unless they make some fundamental changes and soon.

      1. For the niche markets and used bookstores, absolutely! The college town I used to live in now has another one, arguably better than the last. Locally, the used bookstore (in another college town) is great, too. Still has the weird layout that such places seem to grow, like mushrooms. Cushions, chairs, and little nooks for reading until last call. Even smells right- like old paper. All it really lacks is a good coffee shop next door. *chuckle*

        I could see a model for the big box stores wherein they keep a stock on the shelf and have actual knowledgeable staff- people that are actually well read, or at least getting that way. Have free wifi like so many places are offering now, and make it where you get a discount on the e-copy of whatever you buy from the online store when you are actually, y’know, *in* the store. Make the store websites more user friendly, and build up an engaged customer base… a bit like I imagine it would be if Toni at Baen went crazy and decided to open a brick and mortar.

        Thing is, making those fundamental changes will take chutzpah and leadership- and willingness to take risks. I see chutzpah, sure, but leadership, the kind of intestinal fortitude it would take to say to the investors, “We’re changing everything. But it’s going to be alright, because we found something that works, and it goes like this…” Nah, not seeing it yet.

        For so long the old model of publishing/selling worked. Now with everything all in upheaval (like always happens, down the chain of events), it’s not working so well anymore.

        With self publishing taking its first toddling steps into the mainstream, though, I think we’re going to get what usually happens- some drek, some in dire need of a good copy editor (or at least spell check!), and a few gems that we’d never have seen before. It’s a good time to be a reader. And maybe, just maybe, a writer, too. *grin*

        1. Dan, I think you’ve nailed it. Boards want to see immediate profits and that so often derails a change that will, in the long run, help a company survive. I also like your idea of the in-store discounts for on-line purchases. And you are right about this being a good time to be a reader and a writer. I can live with some dreck just to get the great books being self-published or published through small presses that never would have seen the light of day before Amazon’s KDP program and the programs that sprang up in its wake.

  8. The more I observe B&N’s corporate behavior (albeit from afar), the more I am becoming convinced that, in some corporate meeting somewhere,somewhen, somebody must have retailed the story about how Xerox, having their lunch stolen by upstart imaging companies from Japan, decided that they weren’t so much in the imaging business as they were in the information business. (And the fact that they first orphaned PARC and then let Apple clear out their vault of valuables should tell volumes as to their courage in their convictions on that point.) The somebody who related the tale also forgot that that is a consultant’s sales pitch and consultants always want you to do something you’re not doing — that’s how they earn their fees. Doesn’t matter whether it makes sense for the business; that don’t confront them, s’long’s they get their money next Friday,

    M

    1. Either that or the bean counters are standing in front of the table in the middle of board room saying, “But this is how it has always worked. Be patient. It will work again.”

  9. I’m physically limited in how far I can walk and how long I can stand. B&N here got rid of almost every place to sit, and they used to have the little roll-along stools I could sit on in front of a self and search through the books. I can’t stand long enough to really look over the full science fiction rack, so I have not been in a B&N for about two years. It didn’t help that I purchased a discount card and the second time I went to use it they declared it was void. It wasn’t enough to be worth fighting for but it was enough to sour me. The place is simply too much trouble to be worth the hassle to go there. Also when I tried to sell my own books on B&N they bombed. I mean not ONE sale. Amazon gives me a better deal for an exclusive, so why not?

    1. I hear you on the lack of chairs, Mackey. I was amazed at how a store that once encouraged their customers to sit and read now makes it almost impossible to do so. Oh, you can if you go to the cafe, but then you get the looks that tell you you need to buy something. Definitely not meant to encourage comfort or browsing. As for sales, most of ours come from Amazon. iTunes is probably the next highest seller, but it is far below Amazon. BN is barely a blip on the map.

      1. I went to the trouble of looking at my sales numbers from all sources recently. B&N sales were, predictably, the two people who had asked me to make sure my book was available in nook format. I wouldn’t bother, except, well, I love my readers. 🙂

  10. I’m physically limited how far I can walk and how long I can stand. The local B&N removed almost all places to sit and all the little roll-along stools that I used to sit on to scan the shelves. They have made it a very unfriendly place unless you are so badly limited you bring your own wheel chair. And at that there are areas of the store hard to reach if you did use a chair. It’s been a few years since I have been in their store. The Borders when we had one was the same way. Buy something and get out seemed to be the mentality. The Borders is now a furniture store. I wonder what B&N will be?

  11. I have never been in a Barnes and Noble, they don’t have one locally, our local new bookstores are Hastings (one in each of the two cities I normally shop in) and before they went out of business, Borders. Hastings is a large store with a large selection of books, mostly those I’m not interested in. They do have a fairly good selection of Baen’s bestselling authors (almost all of David Weber’s and Ringo’s books for example) but usually only a book or two, if any, by their midlisters. They have their heavily discounted* books in the foyer like you describe, but I have never found a book there that I was interested in. Otherwise their selection of used books is very slim, and prices on used books are ridiculously high, I can buy new hardbacks from Amazon cheaper than I can buy used ones from Hastings.
    Before they went out of business I far preferred Borders, our local one was a small hole-in-the-wall shop in the mall, crammed with books it still probably only had half the number of books that Hastings has, BUT, it sold nothing but books, and I had a much higher likelihood of finding what I was looking for in it. Admittedly they didn’t have as large a selection of the older works by bestsellers, but they seemed to have the latest three to four books by most authors, be they bestseller or midlister.
    Usually I shop at used bookstores because since the Clinton administration the price of new books has gone out of reason, I’m not willing to pay 8 or 9 dollars for a paperback just to check out an author I don’t know of. We do have a couple of good used bookstores around, although my favorite the old lady who owned and ran it sold it recently. She met her husband there when he came in to shop, and I used to stop by and spend time just talking books with the two of them, and we would recommend books to each other. After he died she didn’t keep it too long and sold it to a couple of younger guys who seem to know their business well, but I just don’t care for that much. The other good used store here stocks a limited supply of new books, with no apparent rhyme or reason to which ones (and they are shelved alphabetically with the used ones, so you can only tell they are new and not really well taken care of used, by the price). The proprieter and I disagree rather strongly on politics however, and since he prominently displays political propaganda, including some stating that a portion of the proceeds from the store goes to support X cause, he seldom receives any of my business.
    So most of my books are bought off Amazon, and the used bookstores supply most of my impulse, this author sounds good, I’ll try that, buying.
    Amazon provides better selection, better prices, and more convience, so they get the majority of my business.

    *about what they would cost in a used bookstore.

    1. I loved Borders. Even when I started seeing there was trouble because of changes in the store across from my son’s high school, I still preferred Borders to B&N. Until the last year before the company filed for bankruptcy, the store encouraged browsing and had a decent stock to choose from. The Borders nearest my house was the store that worked with the library on our author events, sending stock and employees to sell it in case members of the public attending the event wanted to buy any of the author’s works. They even gave the library a cut of the sales. We’ve never gotten that sort of support from B&N.

      I love the cries of outrage going on right now because, gasp, Amazon discounted some best sellers even deeper than before. This isn’t on e-books but on hard covers of books such as Dan Brown’s latest, Inferno. Right now, the book sells for $11.65 instead of the cover price of $29.95. The price is even lower than the e-book price. Of course, the e-book price was set by the publisher. The critics are saying this is Amazon’s latest shot across the bow of bookstores and I’ve even seen calls for the government to intervene (rolls eyes). My feeling is that this book and the others are books Amazon already bought and is discounting to move or this is a short term price reduction to build interest in the titles again. Whatever the reason, Amazon is doing what any good retailer should, pricing product to move.

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