Going, going, gone? Reports have Barnes & Noble shutting down

Are the big-box bookstores in jeopardy?

You bet your last buck they are.

If reports coming from the U.S. are any indication, the giant of book retail, Barnes & Noble is expected to close its doors by New Year’s Eve 2014.

World News Daily (WND, for short), a Washington, D.C.-based Internet news outlet, says that Barnes & Noble has closed an average of 20 stores each year in the past two years. More than 600 stores still remain. They are spread across all 50 states.

But still, WND quotes warnings such as this one from Michael Levin of the Contra Costa Times: “If anyone gives you a Barnes & Noble gift card, be sure to cash it in by the end of the year. This may be the last year that Barnes & Noble bookstores remain open.”

Contra Costa Times is a Californian newspaper that covers Silicon Valley to a huge degree. Everything and anything connected to high-technology gets this paper’s detailed attention. So, when Levin writes, “The publishers have to be running scared,” it means they ARE running scared. Here’s Levin’s explanation: “If B&N suddenly shutters its doors, then billions of dollars of books, which the bookstores take on consignment, go into the limbo of bankruptcy court.”

What’s going on?

High-technology revolution is what’s going on. Changes galore: no need to get up and go to your nearest big-box bookstore to browse. That’s what you’ve got your computer browser for, after all.

Some of the big bookstores (Chapters in Canada comes to mind) try to enhance potential customers’ experience. Cafes on the premises, play areas for children, computers all over the place so you can find whatever book you’re looking for in seconds, and the search results tell you which aisle and which row to go to, even.

Except: you can make your own coffee at home, you don’t have to hop in the car and drive wherever your nearest bookstore is located, you don’t have to look for a parking spot (and, in worst-case scenarios, pay for the privilege). Come to think of it, you don’t even have to get out of your pyjamas. All that comfort, and you’re only paying shipping and handling fees for it, in addition to the price of the book itself.

By the way, online prices for books tend to be lower than those you get in big-box bookstores. No need for that much real estate, no need to employ knowledgeable book lovers to help you find good books.

The existence of public libraries helps, too. What if you want to read a book, or only taste it before deciding whether you even like it? What if you feel no need to keep it so you can read it again a few years hence? You can call up your library’s site on your computer, check whether they have got the volume you’re looking for, or if they can get it for you through their exchange networks. They let you know, you drop by, pick up the book and off you go.

Publishers in panic

Publishers, according to the WND story, are wringing their hands at the prospect of Barnes & Noble disappearing. People like spending “countless hours browsing through long aisles of towering bookshelves, discovering new delights and rediscovering beloved old favourites. Our personal attachment amplifies our professional concern: Where will readers go to browse? How will readers discover books that are merely ‘future classics’?” asked one, quoted in the WND story.

Besides, in an ominous overture to the main opera, Barnes & Noble’s chief competitor, Borders, ceased operation in 2011. It shut almost 700 stores down. It sent more than 19,000 employees into what is known in politically correct terms as “the pool of potential employees.” Rudely: it sent 19,000 people to unemployment lines.

But even though Barnes & Noble went forward with one less competitor, it wasn’t without glitches. It had to offer deep discounts on books at Walmart and Costco, for example. To add insult to injury, Barnes & Noble’s Nook reading device has not been able to keep pace with Amazon’s Kindle or Apple’s iPad. Nook was supposed to be manna from heaven. It hasn’t been a flop, but it hasn’t been a success, either, several experts agreed.

What about the other side?

One minor issue with the WND story: it didn’t bother to ask Barnes & Noble or, if it did, it didn’t bother to mention the company’s reaction.

To correct this critical shortcoming, herewith are a few replies from Mary Ellen Keating, a Barnes & Noble media relations VP.

Verbatim, from Ms. Keating’s e-mail:

Our bookstore business is a strong, viable business and we believe we offer something that many of our competitors can’t – a unique in-store experience that allows our customers to interact with knowledgeable booksellers who provide world-class customer service. Barnes & Noble has great real estate in prime locations and is fully committed to the retail concept for the long term. The company is also committed to its E-commerce site, Barnes & Noble.com. On the digital side, we have a strong management team in place at NOOK and are focused on managing the business efficiently so that it becomes financially strong, while at the same time aggressively moving to drive revenue growth. We will remain in the NOOK device business, producing devices that are focused on the best reading experience anywhere. We will continue to serve our College markets and lead the transition to more advanced digital solutions in education.

Barnes & Noble is in a very strong position and will be operational for many years to come. We are confident that by leveraging the strong assets across our businesses we can deliver on the Barnes & Noble brand promise of providing our customers with the best content anywhere, any time on any platform they choose.

End quote.

Now, of course, one could not expect Ms. Keating to come out and say, “Ah, indeed, we’re in the mulligatawny up to the thorax and we see no way out, either.”

If she said THAT, it would have been her last communication using Barnes & Noble’s e-mail system.

Ms. Keating’s words do sound re-assuring, but the fact remains: her company’s chief competitor, Borders, was forced to quit. It seems we’ll have to wait to year’s end to see whether Barnes & Noble rides into sunset, too.

Been there, done that, got the T-shirt

But here’s another angle. It’s called the “what goes around, comes around” effect.

Not so long ago, historically speaking, all and sundry engaged in bitter hand-wringing and tooth-gnashing exercises, as the then-new bookseller chains pushed small bookstores into the dustbin of history. “This is the end of literature as we know it,” they would say, “who will cater to book lovers? Why, those behemoths (they were talking, among others about Borders and Barnes & Noble stateside, and Coles and Chapters, et al. in Canada), they’re all about mass production, no individualized care, no specialized knowledge, these will be just book-selling factories that will ignore what is good and noble (and whatnot) about literature.”

Eventually, the tragedy would impact only those bookstores’ owners who wouldn’t adjust. Some of them, by the way, would move on to lucrative careers within those big-box bookselling machines. They would bring at least a semblance of the good, old-fashioned bookstore atmosphere into the new chains.

But time isn’t standing still.

This is not to say whether it’s better that many now prefer to get their books through online stores, instead of having a leisurely sip of coffee in one of those gigantic bookstores, while browsing books, picking and choosing which ones to buy.

From the technical point of view, Barnes & Noble is going to fight an uphill battle, trying to hook readers on its Nook reading device. Late starts, you know, are fatal these days. Even if the Nook was a technological marvel, leaving both Kindle and iPad in the dust in this sense, its problem is it came almost as an afterthought. Besides, Amazon and Apple’s reach is global. You can’t say that about Barnes & Noble. Its market is huge, but it’s not global.

Here’s the most important question: even if the brick-and-mortar big-box bookselling chains go the way of the dinosaurs, would it mean that people would stop reading books?

Not that I have a definitive answer. But I do remain optimistic.

Why?

History taught me.

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