By Eric Thomas
Barnes and Noble confirmed that they intend to close their giant bookstore located in downtown Royal Oak. This led many in the media to lament the death of bookstores in America, their heads hung low because they think we now live in an America that can’t support bookstores, because people are using their Kindles and iPads and Kobos and other digital delivery systems.
Not so fast.
Bookstores aren’t dying; the Barnes and Noble business model is dying. Years ago, massive companies like Borders and B&N leased stadium sized buildings and aggressively priced books to drive local retailers out of business. We had a national discussion at the time about the corporations versus the “mom and pop shops” and we wondered if the landscape was becoming too littered with giant chain stores. I’ve been told this is what the 1998 Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan vehicle “You’ve got Mail” was about, though I can’t say I ever saw the film because I was single that year.
The results are coming in on the stadium bookstores. As it turns out, if you want deep discounts, you can find them online. As Barnes and Noble rumbles to the tar pit, local book stores are beginning to experience an uptick in sales. The death of Borders was a boon for local retailers. Their sales grew 8% in 2012, after the Borders bankruptcy, and they’ve only inched up since.
We’ve spent the last 20 years locked in a seemingly never ending discussion about what the internet is going to replace. Radio, television, books, newspapers, all have had to stand in the barrel while their particular business model is debated. We attended the funeral of “Newsweek” magazine, which printed its “last print issue” in 2012, only to be relaunched this week. A few newspapers were shuttered because they were unable to maintain 70 percent profit margins, only to be reopened by owners who were comfortable with 68 percent profit margins.
It’s tragic that the Internet hasn’t destroyed our tendency to paint with such a broad brush. If a magazine fails, we don’t wonder what’s wrong with that magazine in particular, we automatically assume that print as an industry is finished forever. We assume that the people who run those businesses are doing their absolute best. If newspapers and publishing houses aren’t making money and they’re sold, why don’t we assume that there will be a Charles Foster Kane around the corner with the passion to make them rise again?
We’ve never been able to see what the Internet adds, we can only see what it subtracts. Why don’t we point out that the population has been growing all along, so even though the percentage of people who buy physical books might go down, the overall numbers continue to grow? If you look at a list of the best selling books of all time, there’s a lot of recent titles on there because the number of people on earth is higher than it’s ever been.
We seem to forget that we had this conversation years ago, when the giant box stores started showing up all over the country. As it turns out, Nick Hornsby was right in “High Fidelity” when he referred to music and books as fetish items.
If those giant, florescent lit mausoleums of books go away, and the mom and pop indie bookstores of old return—it’s a good thing. There are dozens of awesome indie book stores in our area right now, and maybe they don’t have a coffee bar, but they have the books you’re looking for. They know who Don DeLillo and William Gaddis are, and probably can make some recommendations.
It’s not like the written word is disappearing from town, either. Royal Oak boasts one of the area’s absolute best libraries. They have cushy chairs, wifi access, and some really cool community programs. If you’re feeling the literary lack, that resource is only a few blocks away. You can get coffee and a cupcake on the way there.
Don’t misunderstand: it’s bad for the people who work at Barnes and Noble Royal Oak. No matter if it’s a giant, faceless corporation, there are still people who are going to be looking for jobs and that’s bad. You hate to see someone who has given decades to a cause sent out into the street because of a bad business model. That giant glass edifice is going dark, likely to be papered over and silent; it will be a large chasm in downtown that will likely be an eyesore for a while because the corner carries a hefty price tag.
In the meantime, let’s calm down the hysterical sadness surrounding the death of a giant chain bookstore. Let’s keep in mind the hand-wringing that surrounded the appearances of them in the first place, and hope that we can step back and understand the context. Just because one place goes out of business, doesn’t mean that every other place is on the way out as well.