7900 High School Rd, Elkins Park, PA

My car is at the mechanic.

Why am I telling you that in a blog that purports to be about books?

While the mechanic worked on the car, I needed somewhere to wait. I said I would bring my computer along so I could do some work, but where could I sit?  He suggested that he would drop me off at the nearest, best place: Barnes & Noble. With a twinge of hesitation and concern about disloyalty (to myself), I acceded.

Walking into Barnes & Noble felt like finding an old friend. Now isn’t that a surprise? Here’s why…

I haven’t travelled lately, so it’s been a while since I’ve been in any bookstore except my own. So entering a store where I didn’t have to be checking to make sure that displays were properly aligned, and see what else might need fixing, was very relaxing. I could just do what one is meant to do in bookstores: look at the books. (Although I did notice one book in the wrong pile and, for the sake of the friendly bookseller who greeted me when I entered, I put it back in the right place.)

I used to work in Barnes & Noble (I’ve mentioned that in previous posts). In 1997, when I was living in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and B&N opened their first Brooklyn superstore in my neighborhood, I applied for a job as a bookseller. I wanted to learn the bookselling side of the business in addition to the work I had been and was doing as an editor and a literary agent.

I was eventually promoted to Community Relations Manager, which was the job that involved booking and running the store events, which I loved. I worked there for a year and a half. This was during the time when many in the publishing industry saw B&N as the evil corporation that, with its giant stores where they had comfy chairs and let people sit and endlessly browse, and with a Starbucks in every store, was squashing the independent bookstore. In Park Slope, this new B&N was eight blocks up the street from the longstanding local indie, Community Books, and there were many protests and leafletting of our new store. But despite my sympathies for independent bookstores, I liked my big shiny new two-floor B&N with its endless rows of books, and I enjoyed working there.

It’s the endless rows of books I’m particularly conscious of today as I visit B&N. Our Open Book Bookstore is small; we know that. We think it’s part of what makes us special: that because we’re small we choose very, very carefully what we stock, and we really get to know our customers. But I had forgotten what it feels like to walk through a store that’s so large, and to confront section after section. For example, they don’t just have “Teen Fiction” – they have Teen Fiction, Teen Fantasy & Adventure, Teen Romance, Teen Non-Fiction, and so on.

Of course, many of the sections are thinly-stocked with numerous face-out books. And now I’m sitting in a cozy nook in the Home Reference section, and I find it hard to believe that these giant four-color decorating books that cost upwards of $50 ever sell. Maybe most customers do what I’m doing: find the one un-shrink-wrapped copy to browse through in the store. In our store, we don’t encourage the browsing but not purchasing phenomenon. And we don’t have a café (yet!), so we don’t make money on that from the non-book-buying customers.

B&N’s huge display of Star Wars and Harry Potter merchandise

Barnes & Noble is no longer viewed in the industry as the evil corporate giant. You know who that title goes to these days. In fact, industry experts talk more now about whether B&N can survive, and if and when the company might declare bankruptcy. It turns out the “you can browse and you don’t have to buy and you can stay all day” model isn’t really working. Plus, their Nook didn’t really take off, so they’ve lost the ebook business to Kindle. And I had heard they had dedicated more space to toys & games. Now that I’m in the store, I’m shocked by just how much space is toys & books. It’s roughly 30% of the entire store. But that strategy hasn’t really worked, and the company had announced they were going to back away from that.

But now, funny enough, a lot of the indies are rooting for B&N to survive. In many ways, it’s the last big bulwark against that big online retail mammoth small-indie-business-eating Amazon monster.

I have great memories from my B&N days. My time working the info desk helping people find books. The nice people I worked with. The great authors I met (Patti Smith and more!) and even occasionally got to have a beer with. It was a good experience. It’s nice to be back. Just for a visit.


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