Are Chain Bookstores Doomed? Or Just Stupid? The U.K. Shows the U.S. How It’s Done

Have you been to a Barnes and Noble lately? It looks like a record shop, a toy store, an arts supplies store, an…ehhh, I don’t know what.

I know what you’re thinking.

Well, Jacke, can you blame them? Look how besieged they are!  Look what happened to the indies! Look what happened to Borders! Let’s pity B&N. They have to do something. The market for physical copies of books is shrinking, and bricks-and-mortar stores find it hard to compete with Amazon around…

That’s the lament. Or the excuse. Barnes & Noble? Books? Aren’t they just a showroom for Amazon.com?

So all that–market forces, a ruthless online juggernaut, customer preferences–all that left B&N with no choice, right? They had to load up their showroom into a Willie Wonka garage sale?

Ron Boire, the company’s third chief executive in two years, suggested shifting the business away from reading toward things like games, gifts, and art supplies. He seemed particularly excited about 3-D printing and those oxymoronic “adult coloring books,” which Boire said capitalized on a new vogue among consumers for “physical interaction with things.”

Away from reading. Good idea, B&N CEO!

Look, adult coloring books and those 3-D printers are somewhere between harmless fad and destined for failure–that will all become clear soon enough. But the philosophy employed by B&N will remain, and other trinkets and toys will zip into that spot. Books will get crowded out. Away from reading!

(Hint for Mr. Boire: that “new vogue” of “physical interaction with things”? That’s why people want to buy your books too.)

Games and gifts have their place, but come on, Barnes & Noble! Sell books, sell lots of books, make books front and center. Make the books beautiful. Make the displays beautiful. Make the right books easy to find. Dazzle us with the experience of your books.

What is with Barnes & Noble? Why are they so dense?

Why hire Ron Boire, who I’m sure is a very fine fellow, with his background in bookselling and publishing and, well, he’s probably written a few books himself…wait, what? He comes from Sony? From Brookstone, Sears, and Kmart? From Toys R’ Us?

Okay, okay. I hear you. Don’t blame Barnes & Noble, blame Amazon for driving them out of business. (Nevermind that B&N seems devoted to dumb ideas and refuses to follow any of the Jacke Wilson ideal bookstore precepts, which I told them about in 2013, for crying out loud.)

Bookstores are losing to the Internet, just like newspapers and classified ads and broadcast television.

Or are they?

While Barnes & Noble devolves from a bookstore into a thing store, Waterstones, the biggest bookstore chain in Britain, is plotting an entirely different course. In 2011, the company—choked with debt and facing the same existential threat from Amazon and e-books as B&N—nearly declared bankruptcy. Today, however, Waterstones isn’t closing shops but opening a raft of them, both big-box (in suburban shopping centers) and pint-size (in train stations). It has accomplished a stunning turnaround under the leadership of its managing director, James Daunt, who just announced Waterstones’ first annual profit since the financial crisis. How he pulled that off is a long story, involving old-fashioned business cunning, the largesse of a mysterious Russian oligarch, and some unexpected faith in the instincts of his booksellers.

That’s Stephen Heyman, writing in Slate. The whole story is fascinating and you should definitely check it out. Here’s a hint for Barnes & Noble: don’t hire a CEO from Sears, for God’s sake. Hire a guy like Daunt, a successful independent bookseller, who cares about reading. His ideas for bookstore success are suffused with that basic idea: what do customers want to read, and how do we deliver that to them?

Toward reading, Barnes & Noble! Not away from. Toward.

But now…I’m going to switch gears a bit. Because I was talking about this in our very first History of Literature podcast. Is literature dying? That was my question. Here’s the episode if you missed it. (It’s only 15 minutes – feel free to give it a second listen if it’s been a while.)

Episode 0 – Battling the Beast

Here we go! Episode zero of our new podcast, The History of Literature, right here on jackewilson.com. Let me know what you think!

history-of-literature-db

Introducing the wildly unqualified host, Jacke Wilson.

Play

Is literature dying? I thought it might be. And I don’t just mean printed, hard copy books, I mean the phenomenon of people turning to literature for something they can’t get anywhere else. Whatever made people turn to literature–entertainment, escape, enlightenment, joy, knowledge–well, I wondered if they were finding that elsewhere.

Is literature dying? I wasn’t sure then, and I’m still not. That’s the overarching (if often unmentioned) theme of every single episode. I’m reading my way through great works of literature, and seeing whether these books still matter. They did at one time, or at least they did for me. Do they still?

But hey, I’m just a guy, a nobody, a failure, as my producer helpfully pointed out. To really answer the question, we need to look for signs in our culture. Other objective evidence. Hard facts.

And that’s why the Slate article resonated with me. The great dying out of bookstores–all bookstores, including B&N–was not helping literature’s case, people.

But go read that Slate article and tell me if the recent success of Waterstones–and more importantly the reasons for that success–aren’t a cause for optimism. Maybe bookstores aren’t doomed.

Maybe they’re just stupid.

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6 thoughts on “Are Chain Bookstores Doomed? Or Just Stupid? The U.K. Shows the U.S. How It’s Done

  1. I dunno, I have a feeling Boire might be a good salesman, but he doesn’t know what he’s selling. And that’s the issue I see with a lot of companies like this, especially ones that scramble and bring in someone from outside to fix things: you get someone who’s an ace at turning the profits around, but has no idea what the product’s about. [On the other end of the spectrum, we also have those who DO know, but have no sense of running a business intelligently. All Things Must Pass, the recent documentary about the rise and fall of Tower Records, is a good example of this.]

    While B&N’s sales floors have always provided some kind of non-book product (nearly always close to the registers so you have to navigate through them–hi, impulse buy!), I think they’ve at least tried to remember they’re a bookstore first and foremost. Borders and other box stores kind of forgot this and failed in the process.

    Gladly, there’s also been a resurgence of the indie as well; more localized stores that admit Amazon’s there but choose not to play the us-vs-them game, but an us-AND-them game, and surprisingly enough, it’s working.

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  2. Booksamillion is the last bookstore we have in my town and I refused to order from Amazon, going in almost weekly to pick up newly released books but BAM didn’t value their staff so most left for jobs that paid better and I turned to Amazon. I was willing to pay BAM’s prices while there was staff there that greeted me warmly and knew enough about inventory to recommend books I might like based on what I was buying. It stopped being worthwhile when I was faced with a bored staffer who could hardly be bothered to exchange polite pleasantries, let alone know anything about the store’s inventory.

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  3. I still read voraciously, but the library gets most of my real book ‘business’ as I live in a very small space with no library storage to speak of. Things I wish to keep usually go on my Kindle, purchased from…that evil devil!

    Nothing will ever beat a book in hand in my opinion, but I haven’t been in a bookstore in years. I used to frequent them – but I also no longer live in the city so access and time is a contributor to that situation. I buy used normally when I do make a real book purchase, from the online used booksellers. Unless it is a gift, there is no need for me to buy new, and I practice that in most arenas of my life.

    However, after reading the Slate article I am quite pleased to read about Waterstones (love that name!) and its CEO. Sounds like a smart chap 🙂 Perhaps our Brit buds o’er the sea are a mite more savvy when it comes to slow comforts?

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