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.
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?