Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Barnes & Noble, Borders on Death Row and Who Really Cares?

Borders Being Carried Out by Rapidly Melting B&N Snowmen
Chris O'Brien has written an interesting piece over on MercuryNews.com today in which he explains his indifference to the prospect that Barnes & Noble, Borders and Books-A-Million may not be long for this world.  In fact, I think it would be a pretty safe bet that none of these national chains will exist in their present format by the end of this decade (and probably much sooner than that).

What I find interesting is O'Brien's reaction to their probable disappearance.  He recalls how callously the "disruptors" moved in during the 1980s to wipe out thousands of local bookstores - and how consumers everywhere flocked to the big box stores, local stores be damned.  Now, he says it is the "disruptors" that are being disrupted and he really does not much care.

I've written here before about the irony of the situation in which the Big-2 bookstore chains now find themselves, considering how ruthlessly they behaved in city after city as they carved up the national market for themselves at the expense of the bookstores that preceded them.  That's, perhaps, the main reason that, like O'Brien, I am not particularly upset to see the chains suffer this humiliation.  It's one of those "live by the sword, die by the sword" things, after all.  What I'm wishing for is a return to the marketplace of independents willing to carve out a new niche for themselves.  How likely that scenario is, I'm afraid to guess.

We consumers are a greedy lot.  We want more stuff and we don't want to pay a dime more for our stuff than we have to pay, meaning that online bookstores are going to dominate the industry very soon (some would say they already do).  If that means that used-book stores, independent bookstores and libraries thrive again - or at least get a decent shot at thriving - then this might not be such a bad thing.

And, as O'Brien goes on to say, no one will much care when the Amazon.com business model gets routed by the next big thing.  It's just a matter of time.

12 comments:

  1. You could argue that "niche bookstore" now includes the small online publishers that sell their authors' ebooks (and, to a certain extent, print copies, although not necessarily print for every title). You can't necessarily argue that they're local, but they're not Amazon (although they may also sell their stuff on Amazon), and they market stuff that Amazon would never market beyond telling its customers "those who bought this also bought that).

    As far as truly local stores go, I don't think local used bookstores will ever go away as long as print books continue to exist. These stores might not be just bookstores (like one of my local used bookstores, which is actually primarily a candy store, or the other one I frequent, which is primarily an antiques shop), but I don't think the books aspect is going away any time soon.

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  2. If where we buy books is based entirely on price, then any weeping and gnashing of teeth over the demise of brick-and-mortar stores is completely our fault. (I think the big chains are doomed, like the midsize chains Crown and Kroch's before them. But the better indies will probably survive.) If the bookstore experience is important, then skip Amazon and buy from an indie store. The few extra bucks you'll pay are surely worth it.

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  3. As someone who relies on a Barnes & Noble to help pay the bills, I most certainly care.

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  4. How about an e-reader bought through a big box bookstore? Can anyone speculate? Will we be out of luck then?...this may change my mind about what e-reader to get in the future if I am limited on where we may shop for books.

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  5. I think your right about the stores selling used books, Library Girl. They will be around forever and, if I have to, I'll start one of my own just to lure in other book lovers. There might be more of a market for used books than ever before if the big chains shut their doors and start selling exclusively on the net.

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  6. Pete, we are, indeed, the cause of all this because of the way we chase the lowest price on everything, never thinking about local service, local tax bases, etc.

    I thinkB&N will begin to cut stores soon, not having them so close together, and that they might get down to a doable number of brick and mortar stores at some point. But that's pretty optimistic on my part.

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  7. Annie, are you back with B&N? I didn't know that.

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  8. Kayo, I think you would be fairly safe with a Nook because it uses the epub format and that is one common to most readers. There will likely be ways to adapt the reader to get you by for many years.

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  9. I'm there part time right now.

    They recently asked me back full time, offering me another manager's position, but I'm worried about not having a job in a year or two if I accept.

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  10. It's a tough call, isn't it? Personally, I doubt the longterm future of B&N, but I'm no expert. I just think they will drastically have to cut back on the number of stores they keep open - while moving more and more heavily to selling from the internet than they already do.

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  11. The two bookstores closest to me are a decent independant bookstore and a Barnes and Noble which is not very good. I'd be sorry to lose either at this point, and I expect I'll lose both within 5 years.

    I think book publishing has problems at a much higher level than the local store. Publishers have not responded well the changes in publishing the last five years or so. Books are about to go the way of the cd if publishers don't do something soon.

    There are lots of cd's and records out there, even if very few people seem to buy them new. But I haven't seen a single used CD store open up in the Bay Area in the last five years. And we have lots of music lovers of all varieties out here. I don't see how things will be much different for used books once the new bookstores are gone.

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  12. C.B., like you, I would hate to lose the ability to walk into a building and browse through all the latest new books on the market. Online shopping is just not the same because part of what sells a book to me is its overall feel, and physical appeal is part of the equation. I imagine what we are really looking at is a tremendous downsizing of both the number and the size of local bookstores. That means more driving to get to them and fewer visits, I imagine.

    I do think that used book bookstores should pick up some of the slack because books do not lend themselves to electronic copying to the degree that music does. It's heading that way, I know, but those little CDs don't have much physical appeal and they fall apart and get damaged so easily that I don't really miss having them around. Books, on the other hand, are something I will always want to surround myself with...e-books, no. Never.

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