Sunday, September 5, 2010

This Too Seems to Be Passing: The Era of the Big Box Bookstore

79º ~ gorgeous sun w/o too much heat, a gentle breeze, the sound of lawn care activities on a lazy Sunday

Well, Dear Readers, there was a time I would have sworn that the age of the Big Box Bookstore would not pass, and yet, it seems to be doing just that. 

Back at the tender age of 23, I went to work for a grand independent bookstore in Colorado Springs, The Chinook Booskhop.  This was the mid-90's when it seemed a Barnes & Noble was popping up on every street corner, and that each location was primed to knock out the competition of independent stores around the country.  Sure enough, in my first year at The Chinook, Barnes & Noble came to town.  I remember how we, the staff of the Chinook, visited the B&N one by one during the opening week, and came back to give our impressions, talking about the huge cavernous, cold space and the impersonal retailers who staffed it. 

We read all the articles about B&N in the national press and learned that as part of their business model, they staffed the store with superstars from the home office at the beginning and then hired on locals for part-time shifts in order to not have to pay insurance.  (We were smug with our insurance cards in hand.) We learned that the same business model allowed the new store to operate at a loss for the first six months to draw customers in with deep discounts and keep them coming back, even as the discounts were slowly lessened to reach a profit.  We heard about the huge discounts B&N received from publishers due to their ability to order large quantities of books, while we slugged along with paying 60% of the cover price to the publisher.  I'm not sure if all of that was really true, but it felt true at the time.  The Chinook held on until 2004, when the owners retired and decided not to sell their dear store.  I was proud when I learned that the B& N hadn't done in "my store."

In the past couple of weeks, I've now read two articles about B&N's fall from the starry skies of profit-making.  One article discusses Barnes & Noble being up for sale, whatever that means at the corporate level.  The other is the one that sparked this post.  Thanks to a link from The Rumpus, here's an article from the New York Times about one of B&N's major Manhattan corner stores going the way of so many of those independents B&N gobbled up in the 90's.  The lease is up and the rent is too high for their now-dwindling profit-margin.  There's a twisted sense of satisfaction in my former-independent-bookstore-worker heart about all of this.  Sure, it's sad to see another bookstore go down, but I don't believe the loss of bookstores means the loss of reading or literature.  We're in the midst of changing technologies, and people will continue to read, whether through an e-reader or with a hard copy of a book they purchased online, or at a local store that is now smaller, leaner, and willing to special order titles not in stock.

Speaking of which, let me champion again, my favorite online bookstore, Better World Books.  They buy used books, they sell new & used, and they send their profits out into the world to fight illiteracy.  Hope you'll throw a little cash their way when you can.


drew said...

Thanks for the tip on Better World Books. I had never heard of them. I frequently buy used books (usually from Amazon) and am happy to find an alternative.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Drew, I *heart* BWB in a major way. Hope you like them too.

Molly said...

Reminds me of when my favorite, hometown indie bookstore (Hungry Mind, later re-names Ruminator) closed down & was replaced by a Patagonia. I still feel sad every time I pass by. Thanks for the tip about Better World Books.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Molly, I remember Hungry Mind from my undergrad days at the College of St. Benedict. Sad to hear it's no longer around.