Thursday, February 7, 2013

Barnes & Nowhere

Numbers are crunchy. They're good for you, too, like broccoli for your brain. For those craving numerical nutrition while watching Barnes & Noble's current shuttering of many of its stores across the country and abroad, there are all kinds of fresh, delicious numbers out for you to digest. Scads of publications are rushing to analyze Barnes & Noble's poor sales performance during the last holiday shopping season. The company's same store sales were down pretty much across the board, and stats for selling Nooks and e-books in the fourth quarter of 2012 were largely unimpressive.

The fallout from those disappointing numbers, and the bad numbers that preceded them earlier in 2012 and in recent years past, isn't hard to see. From the vantage point of the Gazalapalooza nerve center near our nation's capital, we're watching B&N mothball stores in Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia as we type these words. When they're asked to comment on the store closures, mouthpieces for B&N's executive suite in Manhattan quickly cite numbers. They use all kinds of numbers to to explain, justify and soft-pedal B&N's inexorable death march down the well-trodden path beaten by Borders not so long ago. Incidentally, in a tasty karmic twist of fate, it's also the same path that in the last two decades of the 20th century the company forced countless local independent bookstores all over the country to tread as the Riggio brothers expanded B&N into every retail nook and cranny they could find, both via B&N stores and through B&N's acquisition of the (now defunct) mall-based B. Dalton Bookseller chain.

Shall we examine the numbers? Well, Bob Dylan said you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Similarly, you don't need an accountant to see where B&N's heading, and why. All you need is your eyes, and a passing familiarity with certain recently demised icons of American retail.

The "why" is straightforward, and it has been beaten to death in innumerable reports for the past 20 years. The Internet is why. We needn't spend valuable time on that. If you need a refresher, think back to how you and your family, friends and colleagues conducted much, if not most, of your holiday shopping a couple of months ago.

It's more interesting to put aside the numbers for a bit, and think about what you see when you venture into a Barnes & Noble store. For present purposes, forget the ubiquitous coffee shop. Think instead about what else you see.

Whether you realize it or not, you see ghosts. You see the ghosts of retail past. You see the ghost of B&N's imminent future.

Remember all the Blockbuster stores? At its peak, Blockbuster had many thousands of stores. Today they number in mere hundreds, and disappear by the month. Blockbusters were everywhere. Blockbuster tried to keep up with changing times, switching from VHS tapes to DVDs when the market evolved. Nonetheless, like the VHS home rental model that spawned them, Blockbuster is pretty much nowhere now.

You can buy DVDs at Barnes & Noble. They have a section for that.

That's where you'll find Blockbuster's ghost at B&N.

Most folks order physical DVDs online, from Amazon. The ones that don't stream their video entertainment from Netflix.

Remember all the Tower Records stores? At its peak some years prior to its second and final bankruptcy filing in 2006, it wasn't too hard to find a Tower Records store in almost any American city. Tower was everywhere. Tower is nowhere now.

You can buy CDs at Barnes & Noble. They have a section for that.

That's where you'll find Tower's ghost at B&N.

Most folks download their music purchases online, from Apple's iTunes store, or from Amazon. The ones that don't stream music over the Internet from services like Pandora.

Remember e-readers? That should be an easy one to recall even for you whippersnappers. Kindles and Nooks, right? Well, old-school single-purpose Kindles and Nooks inevitably will share the same technological fate as 8-track and cassette tapes. Tablet computers do anything e-readers can do, and do it just as well with a lot more additional functionalities, in a small package. Those single-purpose Kindles and Nooks used to be everywhere. Very soon they'll be consigned to the same nowhere that Polaroid cameras hang out.

You can buy Nooks at Barnes & Noble. They have a big section for that.

The Nooks are in their death throes, though. It won't be long till they're ghosts, too. B&N is no technology wizard, and no Nook will ever be a great tablet or smartphone. Tablets and smartphones will dance on the Nook's grave as surely as digitally downloaded tunes now waltz among the dusty tombstones of 8-track tapes.

What's left? Oh yeah, books. You can buy books at Barnes & Noble. That's the ghost of Borders, not to mention the spectral residue of B&N's own bygone B. Daltons subsidiary and its growing roster of closed and soon-to-be-closed stores.

More than anything else, Barnes & Noble is a haunted house of retail. Strive as it may to stay open and relevant in an Internet world, its struggles will prove for naught. In this Internet era, the book selling world B&N conquered no longer exists, and so too will B&N cease to exist in any iteration like its present one.

That's not to say we're sounding the death knell for physical books. There will always be people who want physical books, people for whom e-books simply won't do. We hear from them every day. And when those people want actual books, they'll order them online, most likely from Amazon for the foreseeable future.

But, if they're fortunate, they might also have a good local independent bookstore to visit where they can buy those physical books. There are still some independent stores around, battle-scarred though they may be, and after B&N's demise we think might well be more of them. Not that those small shops will have acres of shelves teeming with tens of thousands of books -- the economics of independent book retailing won't permit it. The stores will stock only a few hundred books at a time, likely current and perennial bestsellers. But what economics will permit over the next few years is small bookshops to have Espresso Book Machines, like the one nicknamed "OPUS" at the independent Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C. EBMs, which can print, collate, cover and bind almost any book in (or out of) print in just a few minutes, are relatively new technology, and accordingly large and expensive. So were computers, printers, facsimile machines and cell phones not that long ago. Nevertheless, as recently as last summer there were more than 50 EBMs in libraries, universities and bookstores around the world, with more on the way. Like other new technologies, EBMs will become ever smaller and cheaper as time flies. And when EBMS become sufficiently so, your local independent bookstore will have one ready, willing and able to whip up a high-quality copy of nearly any book that has ever been in existence, at your demand. This is the future of local independent bookshops in a post Barnes & Noble world, and it's a good one.

Barnes & Noble never bothered to mourn the beloved independent community bookstores it vanquished during its remorseless rise to power. Nor will the resurgent independent bookstores waste breath praising B&N when they join with Amazon to bury it next to Borders, in the shadows thrown from the battered stones marking Blockbuster's and Tower Records' unlamented graves.

"Le roi est mort, vive les princes."
~~Lise-Marie Jaillant~~

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