The entirely unnecessary demise of Barnes & Noble

This is infuriating. It looks like upper-management has decided to throw in the towel and is now trying to milk as much as they can, which turns the whole thing into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A few years ago, when Borders was going out of business, our local store had one of those sign spinners stand in front of the local B&N (they were only a mile or so apart) and advertise the 40% 50% 60% off everything. I wondered if they would have done the same to our local independent book shop (several miles away, downtown) and if they had, would it have hastened that store’s demise as well (the indie shop closed down just a year or so later.) Would it have been possible for Borders, in its death throes, to kill off the book-selling market in the entire city?


The thing about all the big-box bookstores is that when they were created, they promised the biggest variety of books ever seen, but they almost immediately started narrowing the inventory – sort of like what the film studios have been doing with “tentpole” blockbusters.

I remember going into a big box, looking for a book their Web site informed me was available (over 20 copies at that location).

Not a single copy was on the shelves. A clerk had to go to the back and find the box they were in to get me one.

Publishers had to pay for shelf space in the store.

So between the narrow inventory and charging the publishers for the privilege of stocking their wares (narrowing the browsing selection further), is it any wonder the customer gives up and heads to Amazon?

Think about the books you see in the central areas of big box bookstores, where the heavy traffic is. Celebrity biographies. Cook books.

Which books sell the most? Romance, science fiction, mystery. Which books are crammed into the stacks at the back where the lighting is poor? Romance, science fiction, mystery.

Near as I can tell, all the big box bookstores are run by people who hate to read. It’s telling that I have better luck finding titles at the local indie.

Their entire paradigm is wrong.


The fundamental cause, the evil of the “disruptive” technologies, is the willingness of VCs to fund them to sell products at a loss till the competition goes under. Uber, Amazon.

An enforced law against product dumping (if it works for the WTO…) would probably transform a number of markets.


Was this Books-a-Million? At my local Books-A-Million they didn’t actually shelve their books in any order. They would endeavor to put them in the correct section, but they wouldn’t alphabetize by author or title or even sort by color of spine. And no, this is not me just complaining about poorly ordered shelves. This is what I was told at the info desk when I was asking about a certain book. I was told it’s in that section. Somewhere.


No, it was a Chapters/Indigo – Canada’s answer to Barnes & Noble.

The author of the book I was looking for is a longtime (10+ years) columnist with a major newspaper, and this was not her first book – more like her fifth or sixth. So not exactly a breakout book by an obscure author.


This is actually a deliberate strategy. Just as grocery stores put staples like milk furthest from the door, bookstores will put popular categories toward the back, so you have to travel through the whole store, the better to tempt you with more impulse buys.

Not only that, the Borders stores I worked for would rearrange categories within stores every year or two, for much the same reason. The customers would grumble, but they had to walk through more of the store to find what they wanted. The higher-ups believed the more time people spent in the store, the more books they would buy.

I hate reading this. This is exactly how Borders failed. Too many damn CEOs with more greed than brains, pursuing half-assed day-late-and-dollar-short plans to maximize profit, then sailing away on their golden parachutes, while those of us in the field saw our hours cut, friends losing their jobs, and waited in fear to see if our store would be the next one under the axe. And yes, they’d lie to us. We were told not to worry, our lease was bundled with two other huge stores, so we shouldn’t expect to be shut down… until we were. It makes me sick to see this happen again. And I can’t help but feel awful for the workers who are suffering through this.

There’s still money to be made in books. And as nice as ebooks and Web sales are, there is nothing like wandering the aisles and finding new treasures, books you might not otherwise notice. I worked for a while at an independent that mostly dealt in used titles, and while the price point was much lower, the store still made plenty of money. Management makes a big difference, and stores with solid management, run by people who love books, can still prosper, even in competition with the Internet. Readers want to read. But if B&N goes down, many people won’t have the same opportunity to do it. I know my reading habits have changed without more convenient access to bookstores (and to be honest, less disposable income to spend, but that’s another matter.) The publishing companies, and the authors who rely on them for distribution, will take a major hit without B&N display spaces. This is bad news for booklovers.


In our small town there are shops with limited parking which gets full at busy times. Recently the convenience store moved the milk, bread and newspapers to near the entrance, presumably to speed up visits and reduce the pressure on parking.
I suspect they have computer programs to work out these things.


Oh, I know, but I guess what I was getting at – and which you explained better – is that this strategy doesn’t necessarily work.

A fun example of a sales strategy working for books: every year I go to the Word in the Street book festival, and the friend I go with takes full advantage of the Harlequin booth’s festival sale – it’s something like 4 books for $5. She loves romances (but also reads SF and lit fic TYVM). That booth always looks like they are selling eggs and milk.

The thing about putting the genre work at the back is that the message is being sent that genre fans are worth less than cook book and celebrity book fans.

Most people drink milk, but a smaller subset of people read romance. It doesn’t work the same.


I feel for all the folks losing their jobs. That sort of thing sucks big time, especially in established roles.

But I mean, this can’t be that surprising, right? It seems all brick & mortar stores are falling because who wants to go to a store that may not even have what you’re looking for unless you need something immediately and need to see if it’s in stock? That’s not much of a business.

Up here, when Chapters opened up, I enjoyed the idea of sitting at their little cafe and flipping through books, but the reality now is I’ve been almost exclusively purchasing ebooks (or audiobooks!) because it’s just too convenient to have a book anywhere my phone or tablet is. There’s a market there for the “slow book” movement to be sure (I mean, nothing - and I mean nothing - feels like walking into a well-stocked large bookstore or library and just feeling the weight of all those words around you). But unlike libraries, these stores exist to sell books, not a book experience, per se.

I’m going to bet that the executives rolled the dice and tried to grow the company. I’d wager that they tried some strategy where, I presume, Plan A was to cut costs and see what it did to the bottom line, and plan B was “at least make the company look good for acquisition so we could get an infusion of cash or whatever”. Plan A failed so now they’re on plan B (I mean, it’s not like the next few months are the months where books fly off the shelves after all).

We can blame Amazon for undercutting these stores. However one of the most frustrating realities of the modern delivered world is studies are finding that for anyone with disposable income to spend on things like most of what Amazon sells (versus, say, going to a library) price isn’t the #1 concern anymore - convenience is. People are choosing to just pick it up on Amazon even if the price isn’t the cheapest, just for the convenience of prime delivery and consistent service experience.

The world is changing around bookstores, and it’s not just because Amazon offers lower prices. People don’t want to go out to get stuff anymore. And the group of folks who make a concerted effort to go out and get stuff and visit these temples to the written word (or indeed their local bookstores) may well be enough to support your indy store, but it seems they aren’t enough to support an empire any longer.

For my holiday shopping, I’m not sure if it was this year or last year that all my shopping was exclusively online. Go back even four years, and while a large part was online, I still made a few dedicated “mall” trips to get ideas for obscure gifts. This year though, it was a matter of “Ugh, why brave the crowds” and instead did everything online.

B&N needs to pull a Wal-mart and very quickly take the online delivery world into account and figure out how to compete. Wal-mart did it; they realized same-day store pickup was a huge ace in their pocket that Amazon (currently) can’t counter. But whatever they do is likely going to require a very different looking staff, and as always, it’s the workers who will suffer the most.

IMHO, the moral of the story is: Never, ever, believe a corporation has your best interests at heart as a worker or customer. Loyalty to either group is the first to go when the ship is poised to sink.


I love this analysis!

I’m finding that, as with books and films, for me it’s either an indie or a big blockbuster. In terms of shopping, that means either a locally-run business I’m going to walk by anyways, or Amazon. It’s the chain stores in between those two sizes which I don’t have as much reason to go to anymore.


I had a similar experience. Went into Chapters looking for two books. One, an anthology containing stories from such obscure* writers as Jon Scalzi and Mary Robinette Kowal and the other by Seanan McGuire, both within a couple of days of release. Bookstores get books before release day to give them time to prepare them and get them out.

No local store had a copy of either. Didn’t know when they would get in. Couldn’t be sure, even if I ordered it.

Went to Black Bond (semi-local, a province-wide versus national chain). They had the anthology in stock and could get me the other in a couple of days. Bonus for the author: when the clerk realised what series it was, she ordered a copy for her daughter, at the same time.

Chapters is going downhill, and it is nothing to do with e-books or people not reading. What saddens me is that I really, really hate Amazon. I will be pissed if they end up the only way to get books.

*This is me being very sarcastic.


Kind of what happens when you let an industry “consolidate”. Back in the '70s, we had the Classics chain, and they were good.

In Montreal, we had Classics Paperbacks on Ste-Catherine near Mountain - no hard covers, all paperbacks and trade paperbacks, 3 floors in a narrow brownstone, maybe half the floor area of the Chapters on Rideau and Sussex here in Ottawa. You wanted sci-fi? First floor, straight from the entrance on the back left wall, maybe three 6-shelf bookcases, all the best authors well-represented.

Someone like me looking for professional reading on music? Third floor, right side of the centre island (about three by 3 shelves). I’d browse that section at any available opportunity because I could find books like Jarman’s analytical biography of Alban Berg (or George Perle’s biography of Berg as well), or Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony, or…

Want science or math? You could find Einstein on relativity or Levi-Civita on the absolute differential calculus (i.e., tensor calculus). There weren’t a lot of books of any one type, but oh my! they were well-chosen. Try finding these things in Chapters!

But eventually the chain was bought out by W. H. Smith, and the Classics Paperbacks store, being the unionised shop that it was, was the first to be shut down. The other large Classics outlet down the street near Guy? Well, the first thing you would be greeted with would be remaindered books. (Sound familiar?)

During my first years in Ottawa, there was a good independent bookstore called Prospero - general stock well thought out, a good science fiction section, a very good section on IT (even found a very in-depth book on how to design and make digital and hybrid synthesisers). The bookstore still exists, but it was bought out by Coles, I believe, who merged with Smith Books to form Chapters, who were bought out by Indigo…

Wanna guess what the selection is like in Prospero now? Wanna guess what the first thing that greets you as you go in the door is? There’s a pattern here…

…and I would call it an incredibly boneheaded pattern if it weren’t for the fact that the upper management probably doesn’t care because they are making out like bandits regardless of the company’s health. Otherwise, it is precisely people like me who keep bookstores in business. In the course of my life, I have probably bought enough books to stock a (somewhat specialised) urban branch library or a small town’s central library. When I shop for books, I am looking for something I haven’t seen before: I don’t know what it is until I see it. When I entered Classics Paperbacks or pre-buyout Prospero, it was pretty much guaranteed that I was coming out with at least one book in my hands, and it was also guaranteed that I would visit at least once a week.

The flip side, of course, is that I had better find books that I consider worth reading, and I am fussier than the average Joe who goes in a couple of times a year to pick up the latest thriller by his favourite best-selling (hack) writer. (That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy a good trashy novel - I certainly can, depending on how well the trashy novelist keeps the story moving, but that is not all I want to see on the shelves.) Someone like me is guaranteed to spend as much in a couple of weeks as most customers spend in a year. A bookseller should want to lure people like me into their store - I’m far from unique in my buying habits - but it takes skilled buyers to do that.

I don’t buy books that way anymore because I go in, look at the shelves, and there is very, very little worth reading. If it takes me half an hour of browsing to find a book that I might want to spend an evening reading, there’s a problem. If I can’t find professional reading at all (and I don’t know what new reading is available until I see it), there is an even bigger problem.


Funny how the smaller shops have a better selection of books, eh?

I remember going to Strand in NYC and had to seriously consider how much room was in my suitcase and how much money I wanted to spend. There’s a couple of bookshops here in TO like that too, but they’re all small (or at least not big boxes) – old storefronts built 1880-1930, or old houses converted to shops.

So the books are definitely there if one wants to stock them.

Sometimes I think the big boxes are doing it on purpose to dumb us down.


It might well be something like that. That their buyers believed that buying all those books that end up in that large section at the entrance could be profitable is a rather frightening thought.

Given that Amazon is also more than willing to give away such dreck or sell it for pennies to the dollar, a late stage capitalist conspiracy is much more believable.


I always thought my Dad was weird for talking about his computer books as if I’d be able differentiate Stepanov from Josuttis. But it could well be have been a survival strategy for dealing with bookstores that alphabetize by author. Either that, or he was so used to citing them by author, year.


To me, there are mainly two reasons I might go to a bookstore.

One would be when I want a specific book, I’d go to buy it. But they fail miserably at that due to being totally disorganized and having such limited selection. Maybe after spending hours in 3 bookstores, you might find the book you’re looking for in a pile on a table somewhere, if you’re lucky. If not, you just wasted your time for nothing. On Amazon, just search, click, and you’ll have it in a couple days. One thing that book stores could do would be to have a catalog system. While the dewey decimal system isn’t perfect for classification, it’s easy to look a book up and go find it in a library.

The second use case would be browsing, when I don’t really know what I’m looking for. Big-box bookstores are a bit better at that, but not great. There are so many fluff books (and souvenirs, greeting cards, toys, brownies, etc.) crowding out the interesting things. And then if you find a book that looks interesting, it’s part 3 in a series but they don’t have part 1 or part 2.

This is where the independent used book stores excel. So many interesting books of all types, none of the fluff. You can find older books, obscure things, foreign books, things you would never have thought to look for, but which are right on topic of something you find interesting. They’ll have entire series that someone unloaded, and which you can buy for about the price of one new book.

So, not really sad about losing Barnes & Noble, but it sucks for the career workers. There aren’t many close alternatives for them to carry their careers over to. Meaning, if you’ve built a career in grocery, it’s easier to switch to another grocery chain than some other type of retail, but how many other big book chains are there?


True. When I browse for professional reading in music, I now head to Book Bazaar on Bank St. here, which has a music section comparable to that of the bookstore one finds in a university with a serious music programme.

I think, however, there are a few potential problems with used bookstores:

  • They’re definitely not all created equal. There is a small chain called Book Market (a few locations in Montreal, a few in Ottawa, I believe) that essentially buys used books en vrac, so to speak, then dumps them in the bins with minimal sorting. The results are reminiscent of the front areas of the Big Box retailers; the selection is very much hit or miss.

  • I suspect the business may be as precarious as that of the independent retailers. I’m pretty sure that the buyers in the shops that curate their offerings have an even greater workload than the retailers - they have to go out and look for the books at estate sales, etc… Suffice to say that I have seen two very good used/collectors bookshops in the Glebe go out of business since I moved to Ottawa.

  • On a personal level, browsing for professional reading at the retailers was part of how I kept up to date on what was happening in the field. This is where I miss bookstores like Classics Paperbacks and Paragraphe back in Montreal. For instance, I got Jarman’s Berg biography when it came out (or within a very short time of release). This is where a store like Book Bazaar can’t compete - people in my field who buy these books hold on to them for a very long time. I have yet to see this particular book in Book Bazaar 40 years later.

Now, if I need to get another copy of Jarman, yeah, Amazon will do the trick, but, if I were dependent on a store like Book Bazaar to find out about the book, I’d be SOL. The problem with Amazon for this kind of browsing is that they will shill all sorts of dreck as “personal suggestions”, so that a book like Jarman’s is buried many pages into the recommendations (if it shows up at all). Browsing on Amazon is quite a bit more tedious than wandering through a bookstore.