People have been bemoaning the death of the bookstore for decades. First, there was the outcry when independent bookstores began to sell their locations to large chains, like B. Dalton. Then there was the hand-wringing when amazon.com looked like it was going to take bookselling away from the brick-and-mortar stores (this, unfortunately had elements of reality to it). Then B. Dalton collapsed and Borders collapsed, leaving big empty spaces in the country's downtown areas and shopping malls. It's not really fantasy: the big gay bookstore chains like A Different Light shut their stores in the wake of the expansion of online bookselling. Now, there's only one big chain bookseller doing business on Main Street: Barnes and Noble. And this week, Barnes and Noble announced it would be trimming the number of its retail stores by twenty a year until they reached between 450 and 500. Why? The business model has changed, and Barnes and Noble is in part complicit. How? Worth a thousand words, I think:
Below the great orange bookplate for clarification.
The best analysis of Barnes and Noble's predicament comes from The Atlantic, where Peter Osnos is bemoaning the closure of a big Barnes and Noble in Washington D.C's Union Station as part of the company's transition to a digital future. Yes, the company has seen better days and sales results:
Barnes & Noble's post-holiday report for 2012 reflected a drop in same-store sales of 3.1 percent, and despite a substantial push to expand its Nook line of e-readers, product sales for the devices were down 12.6 percent from a year ago.Yes, some of the brick-and-mortar stores are unprofitable for reasons such as rent, but the major factor in this is the fact that
the company's revenues have been significantly impacted by its commitment to build the Nook franchise.Does Barnes and Noble OWN the Nook Franchise? Yes, 80% of it. Who owns the other 20%? Microsoft. Further, Barnes and Noble didn't make as much money after the Borders bankruptcy as they expected. Then there's Amazon, and its Kindle franchise, and there's Apple, and there's Google and the Android system.
It's really hard to feel sorry for Barnes and Noble in all this. The problem I have here is that I think Kindles and Nooks and iPads are complicating things in the book business. Yesterday, I watched for five minutes as one of my students helped another student download the e-version of one of the books I assigned onto her iPad. It took longer than that.
But, as a historian, there's another thing that bothers me about the digital aspects of the book business, and it goes way back to the effects of European settlement of North America on the native people who were already here. I figure you know about rum, but there was another European object that really disrupted Indian life:
That's a 17th century Spanish flintlock pistol. The eastern tribes who were in contact with the European colonizers quickly understood its efficiency in hunting game, but the was a catch. If you hunt with a bow and arrow, and your bow breaks, you make a new one from the branch of a sapling, and you probably have spare bows around. If your gun breaks, you have to find a European to sell you another one or to fix it, and if you don't have easy access to fur-bearing animals, the only thing you have that specifically the English colonists wanted was land. I'm not sure what you have to do if your Nook or your Kindle malfunctions, and I know it's not that dire, but if you're not near a bookstore or a library that has the book you're reading, well . . .
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 [Barnes and Noble]. Amazon has more of them, for cheaper. Besides, if I wanted to buy a Nook, I would already have bought a Kindle.I'll admit that of the last ten books I've bought seven have come from Amazon or Alibris or one of the independent booksellers who list at www.bookfinder.com, an aggregator for new and used books or, actually, from Barnes and Noble online. The eighth, from a visit to the Barnes and Noble in Studio City because I needed something to read on a flight to New York, and the ninth and tenth from the Strand in New York. I'll REALLY worry if the Strand goes out of business.