The ever-dying book

Really wanted to comment about the closing of the 66th St. Barnes and Noble, because I really disagree with the Times article on a few crucial points. The main thrust of the article is that the 4-story superstore is closing because people don’t really read print books any more: at most, they see the store as a coffee shop where they can read something for free, not a bookstore where they can buy coffee after they’ve bought a book. They also point out that Upper West Siders will still be able to use the 82nd St. B&N, which “…[helped] put the beloved independent bookstore across the street from it, Shakespeare & Company, out of business 14 years ago.”

While I do argue with other aspects of its business model, I heartily approve of the coffee gambit. Barnes and Noble has spent years cultivating itself as a “destination,” the place you go to relax by yourself or with friends, so that when you do buy a book, you’ll buy it from them. They also encourage people to read in the store, which ideally leads to people trying, liking and buying books they wouldn’t have risked buying sight unseen. And whether or not they buy books, customers generate revenue for the store with every overpriced latte. The problem is, we’re on the cusp of a generational shift where online bookstores, handheld reading devices and recommending algorithms are going to outdo everything a physical bookstore can in terms of selection and browsing, and the new generation of readers is more comfortable reading online, leaving B&N with a four-story coffee shop in an overpriced Manhattan neighborhood. They’ve tried to justify the floor space by stocking educational games and cards, things you can’t use an E-reader for, but bookstores are probably going to have to reinvent what a physical bookstore can do better than a digital one if they want to stay afloat.

And topping that list is customer service, which I think is the real reason why two of those three bookstores I mentioned at the top are dead or dying and the third is doing okay. For those of you who are not Manhattan natives, the 66th St. Barnes and Noble is the one where every thirty seconds, a voice yells over the intercom for people to get out of the cafe if they’re not actively eating or drinking, and a server whisks away your empty plate so you have no excuse to linger even five minutes after eating. It’s an obnoxious, unfriendly place, and when I lived two blocks away, I would walk the extra twenty blocks to 83rd St. or the fifty blocks down to 14th St. There was never enough seating at either store, but I always knew I was welcome to stay as long as I wished, with friends or alone, whether or not I was buying anything. Shakespeare & Co, as I have mentioned before, was a store with no selection, unfriendly staff, and real management problems. As a bookish teenager, I went there maybe twice and was made to feel supremely unwelcome both times. Just because it was a smaller chain that got crushed does NOT make it the hero of the tale.

The bookstores that I go to have a few crucial things in common: they make customers feel welcome, they follow customer buying trends to know what’s good to stock for their clientele, and they have staff who are knowledgeable in different areas, so you can get recommendations for books similar to the ones you like. Those are all social concerns, and they’re the one edge physical bookstores can cultivate better than computers: you can talk to real people, face to face, about books, and you have a relaxing physical space where you can meet other like-minded people in your area.

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