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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Barnes & Borders

Publishers Lunch Daily has a list of Barnes & Noble locations that have quietly closed at the end of 2011.

The demise of their big and busy store in the University Village mall just down the hill from the University of Washington and its University Bookstore had been known to me earlier. But also of interest is that their store in Washington DC's Georgetown neighborhood has also shuttered.

Going back fifteen years ago in the earliest days of B&N's nationwide superstore expansion, they would take out ads in places like The New Republic to ballyhoo their wonderful selection, including of academic, scholarly U Press type books. Those two stores, University Village and Georgetown, were two of the half dozen or so locations that would be specifically included in those posts. So to see those two stores closing at pretty much the same time kind of brings down the curtain on a small part of the book superstore era.

The University Village store is one that I'll certainly miss as a literary agent for sf/fantasy. Not so much the one in Georgetown, which sold very little in the genre though it was overall still considered a kind of flagship store for the company and had a depth of inventory that went beyond what was justified by its sales. That store gave me "Evanston moments."

Because it was visiting Evanston, IL, I'd guess when I was over for WorldCon in 2000, that I first came across a Borders with a really really godawful surprisingly bad sf/fantasy section, which theretofore I'd never known such a thing existed, and then popped across the street to the B&N which had a much better selection, but you could tell by looking at the yellowed books and how they would have the 5th printing of a Deathstalker novel that was several months into a 6th printing that they weren't actually selling sf/fantasy but at least deserved credit for having the selection.

That was a strength of B&N for many years, to have a more consistent core title selection across their entire range of stores, and that was the Georgetown store, to go in and be grateful they were carrying a lot of JABberwocky titles but to be deeply depressed by the deeply yellowed tops of the books.

But to get to the actual two points of the post...

1. B&N is getting very Borders like in their selection now. They're no longer bothering with a core stock across the full range of their stores. It used to be, and I felt this lack of brand identity was a very big problem for Borders that did not serve them well, that I could go to the Borders in Commack and find half the selection of the Stony Brook store a few miles away, while the B&N gap was more like 2/3 or 3/4 of the title count in a bad store vs. a good one. Now, the Tribeca B&N carries fewer than half the titles in Union Square. The B&N in Bayside Queens carries only two of the six "Lost Fleet" paperbacks, and these are up there with the Nightside books as the top-selling JABberwocky titles after Charlaine Harris, Brandon Sanderson and Peter Brett.

Now, B&N doesn't have to worry about physical competition the way Borders had to worry about competition from B&N. But there is competition from Amazon. There's a school of thought that says it doesn't make any sense for B&N to compete with the long tail of Amazon because there's no way to do it so why even try, as a B&N you're selling something other than whether the store carries two Lost Fleet paperbacks or six. I'm not there. Cost of inventory in mass market is not a huge factor in the success or failure of your business, I still think if you're a B&N and you want to give people an excuse to get in their car and visit your store that you can't nickle and dime. B&N knew this once, and it saddens me that they no longer do. That said, times have changed, and maybe it doesn't matter the way it did six or eight years ago that your stores had full runs of the key series while the other guys did not.

2. I used to visit DC for a four day weekend in no small part because I loved to take the temperature of a very big bookselling market. I could easily visit 6 B&N, 8 Borders, a handful of Waldenbooks, a few Daltons, a handful of Olsson's, some Books a Million. I could easily visit a very very impressive 30-35 bookstores over a long weekend. Now there's nothing left to visit. The mall stores slowly disappeared. Then Olsson's went bankrupt. Then Borders started to close the underperformers before now closing entirely. And the Books a Million in Old Town Alexandria is gone as well.

So let's see, now on a DC visit I can go around and visit the Dalton/now B&N in Union Station, B&N on E St., Clarendon, Rockville, Springfield, Potomac Yard and Bethesda. KramerBooks and Books a Million in Dupont Circle. Politics & Prose. Whatever's before security at National Airport. So that trip's gone from 32 bookstores to 10. And really, not even that. Traipsing out to Rockville or Springfield made sense when I could visit both a Borders and B&N, not just to visit another B&N. Potomac Yard is a pain to get to without a car, I'm not up for that any more. Politics & Prose is a pain to get to and doesn't really have much of an sf/f section so what's the point. I used to think about dragging in some of these just to make the list of stores visited look very very impressive for claiming the trips as business. Now, I can go to DC and actually justify visiting all of seven bookstores that might offer a reasonable return on the schlepping.

Am I right to find this depressing?

Because that's one way to look at it, with each new bookstore that closes more and more of us can now choose to drive several more miles than before to visit a boring B&N that maybe doesn't even bother to carry the entire Lost Fleet series in mass market. [Another of the B&N that's said to have closed is their Westside Pavilion store just south of Westwood in LA; with the Borders having closed a year prior to the bankruptcy, this introduces yet another urban book-buying desert, with the closest stores now requiring a schlep several miles west to Santa Monica or east to the Grove.]

Intellectually, I know that we can also all now sit in our easy chairs and buy pretty much whatever book we want in a minute or two on our iPads or our Nooks, our Kindles or our phones.

But you know, even that kind of depresses me in a way.


Unknown said...

Very depressing to hear that the Georgetown B&N is closing. When I lived in DC I went there a couple of times a week. Plus there was an elite literary bookstore also on M that I can't remember the name of. And Kramers and Politics and Prose, which I never really liked because they were condescending. Although I did love the coffee shop there. And I knew Olssen's was doomed when The Prophet of Yonwood came out and I went to the downtown Olssen's to buy it, specifically to patronize an indie store. They didn't have it. I made them look it up and they told me I must have dreamed it. Couldn't find it anywhere. I went out to the Bethesda B&N the next day and got one off the big stack face up on a table. AND the Olssen's in Crystal City once didn't have a Trollope I wanted, in fact didn't have any Trollopes, and the clerk didn't know who Trollope was. AND they didn't have The Two Towers on there shelf, which is pretty much inexcusable.
I got a Nook for Christmas and ordered Legend, but I find I can't lose myself in it, and I don't think it's the book. I think it's the platform.

Anonymous said...

I was stunned to hear the University area bookstore in Seattle was closing. If a bookstore can't survive in a college area, where you not only have students but individuals who want to live in a vibrantly intellectual area, what's left?

Over the holidays we discussed the state of bookstores in general (as a lot of books are given as gifts in my house.) Perhaps it's time for smaller, mall-like stores to come back, stores that don't require that many employees but stock an amazing range for their size.

Waldenbooks and B. Dalton's were always on my list to visit along with the independents in my town in the suburbs. When I was in the city, I knew I could always stop at the local bookstores. I miss Brentano's, the Doubleday bookstore on 53rd st., and even Scribner's from when I was a child. Scribner's always seemed sacred, having been the publisher of so many of my idols.

B&N has become more of a general store now. I couldn't even find decent calendars there this year. Every time there's some sort of reshuffling or change, I get the feeling the bookstore is rushing to keep up with some impossible goal they see, while leaving the actual readers and bookstore devotees behind in the dust.


Daniel Dydek said...

I feel like I have to take this two ways: as a book-lover, and a book-writer. As a book-lover, it's a little depressing that I might have to go further than normal to find a bookstore (though, for me, a BAM opened up in the exact space at the mall where Borders just closed.) Also, I live way out in the boonies, so driving a distance for a good bookstore (emphasis on "good") has always meant 30 miles to Pittsburgh. As a book-writer, though, it only goads me further into thinking how writers and publishers need to find a way to work with the e-book trend. It is clearly not going away. Libraries, slam-full of free books, have been struggling even longer than book stores. So the question remains: what are we going to do about it?

Anonymous said...

Also closed at the end of 2011 is the East Lansing location of Barnes & Noble, directly across the street from Michigan State University. This means that for the first time in at least 4 decades -- maybe since "the modern era," whatever that means -- there is no general bookstore within walking distance of the 40,000 student campus. (There is no newsstand or magazine outlet left, either; I can only think of four places left in our university town where one can buy a newspaper.)

I didn't know about the Seattle and Georgetown closings until I read your report. I suspect what this all adds up to is the younger generation is not buying physical books in sufficient quantity to support a retail business. We've already seen this with CDs.