Column: Bookstores Still Serve an Essential Role
Dear Barnes & Noble,
It is time for an intervention. You say you are closing a third of your bookstores over the next decade while admitting they are not unprofitable. Please, listen to yourself.
I say this on behalf of your friends: the publishing industry, book lovers everywhere and, well, pretty much everyone but Amazon.com. We lost Borders. We cannot bear to lose you, too.
You are the last hope of the brick-and-mortar bookstore. At first we were optimistic. We love these places, with the pictures of Great Authors fraternizing on the walls. We attend readings and drink coffee there. We go to brick-and-mortar bookstores to do just about everything other than buy an e-reader.
This is why your approach of late is so worrisome.
Every week I get an email from you beseeching me to buy your Nook e-reader. You have reached the point where you are offering me $30 worth of gift certificates. And every time I walk into the store, a voice from the loudspeaker implores me to buy a Nook.
Look, I do not come to Barnes & Noble every weekend and purchase several volumes because I am laboring under the misapprehension that Nooks do not exist. I show up and buy because I like physical books. I don’t understand why you are working so hard to discourage this. I understand, in theory, that it is far cheaper to sell books that require no shipping and restocking. But we do not want to buy that sort of book from you. Amazon has more of them, for less. Besides, if I wanted to buy a Nook, I would already have bought a Kindle.
We say this with love. We want nothing more than for you to succeed.
And you are not doing so right now. Your device sales are dropping. December sales were disappointing, even though the store was liberally papered with copies of The Elf on the Shelf. The chief executive of your retail group, Mitchell Klipper, told the Wall Street Journal that you expect to close about 20 stores a year over the next 10 years, lowering the total number of stores from 689 (not including college stores) to 450. And he made a strange analogy to Bed Bath & Beyond, about how people do not go to housewares stores and curl up with their families and a good blender. All in all, the signs are worrisome.
That is why we are staging this intervention. When you see someone you love doing something that hurts them and you, you feel bound to say something. Where books are concerned, absence does not make the heart grow fonder. “Seldom seen and soon forgotten” seems the more likely model. Why would you assume that if there are fewer Barnes & Nobles, there will suddenly be more people dashing to BN.com?
And bookstores are — as even Klipper noted — not unprofitable. Is getting rid of them really a good way to save money?
Bookstores still serve a vital role. There, people encounter many titles for the first time, titles we may decide to buy later or may just take with us to the restroom and linger over in blatant defiance of the posted signs. We certainly would not know that Teen Paranormal Romance was such a unified genre if you did not display it so beautifully. Bookstores’ ability to bring us into contact with hundreds of things we did not know we wanted is not to be underestimated. And they help even the online trade. Twenty-four percent of people who bought books from online retailers did so after seeing them in bookstores first, according to a 2011 survey. Yes, this is irksome if you are the book retailer, but it’s critical publicity for the book.
The market research and media forecast firm Simba Information keeps finding that a decrease in physical bookstores doesn’t drive e-book sales. It just makes people forget that books exist and are things you can spend money on. More contact with books and book retailers makes you more likely to buy books. Less does just the opposite.
“All right,” you may justly say, “but if you care so much about bookstores, why do you go into them only to buy coffee and sit for several hours, using the free WiFi without purchasing anything off the shelves?”
Look, we can change! Just stop closing the bookstores. You have something special! Don’t throw away your birthright in this frenzied dash after the thin gruel of the e-book market! You are all that stands between us and a world where the only place unused books are sold is at Urban Outfitters, as decorative ironic curios, along with vinyl records and toilet brushes shaped like owls.
Do not push us to that point.
Alexandra Petri is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial staff.