Selling Books After B&N
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Barnes & Noble will close about 20 stores a year over the next decade, according to Josh Voorhees at Slate, "cutting roughly a third of the bookseller's bricks-and-mortar locations in the process."

As of January 23, the company operated 689 retail stores — not including the separate chain of 674 college stores — having peaked at 726 in 2008 And according to the chief executive of Barnes & Noble's retail group, who was quoted in a Wall Street Journal story, "[in] 10 years we'll have 450 to 500 stores." 

Independent booksellers might be forgiven for feeling an element of schadenfreude now, after having suffered at Barnes & Noble's corporate hands for the past 20 years. In 1999, Elena Skye had to close Blackwater Books, her store in Hoboken, New Jersey, four months after a Barnes & Noble opened nearby.

"There's something compulsive about Barnes & Noble, something scary about how big they feel they need to be," Skye told the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House, Dennis Johnson (another Hoboken refugee). "They may have some decent bookstores, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be stopped when they're crossing the lines over free enterprise."

Eventually, in 2010, after having forced out the vast majority of Hoboken's smaller booksellers — the only two left are Eureka Comics and Symposia Community Bookstore — the Barnes & Noble folded as well. "Having poisoned the well, the Hoboken B&N itself went out of business, leaving the town… without a bookshop, probably forever," laments Johnson.

At least residents of the New Jersey town have easy access to the literary oasis that is New York City. But the B&N closures will have a greater effect in suburban America, where, as Mark Athitakis writes, Barnes & Noble "brought literary culture to pockets of the country that lacked them." Athitakis owes the bookstore chain a debt for its influence on his development as a reader: "Barnes & Noble's campaign, in competition with Borders, to open 20,000 square-foot superstores across America throughout the decade was fueled by a realization that suburban shoppers weren't necessarily hunting for books per se but were looking for a semblance of community, or at least a place to rest for a few minutes." 

But there is evidence that Athitakis' pessimistic nostalgia and Johnson's doomsaying may be a bit premature. Just last year, according to the American Booksellers Association, 43 indie bookstores opened in 25 states. And this past December, ABA spokesperson Dan Cullen told the New York Times' Leslie Kaufman that in-store book sales for November were up 10 percent from 2011 and "sales for the indies are continuing strong."

And some independent booksellers in New York are feeling optimistic. 

Faye Bowles, a manager at Posman Books, told Nation Books, "It's the curatorial diversity of our selections rather than the sizes of our inventory, that gives indies the edge... I am ever the Pollyanna that this is an industry in which there will be a place for the bookshop in the leaner, independent model."

Jonas Kyle, co-owner of the Brooklyn store Spoonbill & Sugartown, said, "Bookstores will continue to exist, even medium-sized ones, because as people continue to urbanize they will always need interesting places to go. A well-curated bookstore can fulfill part of this need, drawing intelligent, curious people out of their homes."

All of this cautious optimism, however, is further complicated by a survey conducted in October 2011 by the Codex group, a book market research and consulting company. According to the survey, 24 percent of people who said they had bought a book from an online retailer in the past month said they had seen the book in person, in a bookstore, first; moreover, 39 percent of people who said they had bought books specifically from Amazon said they had looked at the book in a bookstore first.

Indeed, as the New York Times' David Streitfeld writes: "The 2011 demise of Borders, the second-biggest chain, dealt a surprising blow to the e-book industry. Readers could no longer see what they wanted to go home and order.

These statistics, to Johnson at least, are very upsetting. "Almost 40 percent of Amazon's book-buying customers have rejected something fundamental to Amazon, which is the concept of buying something sight unseen. And indeed, according to this poll 40 percent of Amazon's business thus relies on brick-and-mortar bookstores," he writes. "Which begs the further observation: What happens if the geniuses at Amazon puts all those bookstores out of business?"

However, the sales director of powerHouse Books in Brooklyn's Dumbo neighborhood, Wes Des Val, thinks that indies and Amazon can co-exist — with some creativity by booksellers. "As a result of these closings I'm most eager to see how many small independent bookstores, run by smart and creative people who understand [that] the way to combat Amazon is through discerning selection and presentation, will pop up in their wake, " he said. "I feel the next decade and beyond will bring us more than a few exciting retail opportunities for physical books as they find their welcome place in the digital world we live in."


Tags: barnes and noble, bookstores, independent bookstores

    • Brendan O'Connor
    • Brendan O'Connor is an intern at Nation Books. He graduated from Kenyon College in May with a BA in English. Now he lives a glamorous, bohemian lifestyle in New York as a wildly successful writer of poignant yet hilarious works of varying lengths.

    • Brendan O'Connor's full bio »

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