And Then There is The Big Box Bookstore

I wrote yesterday about my visit to a wonderful little independent used and antiquarian bookstore. As it happens, I also had a chance to visit our nearby Barnes and Noble store, incentivized by a 20% coupon I’d received by email. Turns out I was able to score a copy of Capital by Thomas Piketty (my BIG summer reading project) at under $20 (retailed at $40) using my Barnes and Noble membership, the coupon, and the discounted price they were selling it at. Perhaps they knew that sooner or later potential readers would figure out this is a LONG book even if it is a best-seller.


It is interesting to reflect on how my experience compared to my visit to the Indie bookstore. Both certainly offered the experience of browsing long aisles of books and discovering books of interest I was unaware of. Barnes and Noble occupies far more space of course, and one of the big differences is no floor to ceiling bookcases and much wider aisles. There was no Norman in the basement lovingly preparing books for the shelves because there was no basement.

Still, the booksellers were friendly and I was asked if I needed any help. So were the people at checkout, but with a big difference. It was all very inefficient, and impersonal. No one knew any names. The customers by and large didn’t know the booksellers or each other. I suppose there are times we want it that way. But the feeling was, as I reflect on it, that this was just a big box store for books and media–and pastries.

Our local Barnes and Noble.

Our local Barnes and Noble. Picture from B& N website:

That was the other thing. At checkout, we were given a coupon for $10 off cheesecake from their cafe’. And we were really encouraged to go buy one. So we wandered over, only to find out that the starting price was $40. We didn’t need cheesecake that badly. But we were given plenty of reasons why we could need it. It was plain that they really wanted to sell us a cheesecake.

It was interesting that the greatest effort to engage me as a customer in a bookstore was to try to sell me a cheesecake. In the other store, what they cared about were what kind of books I was interested in. It is fascinating that there is something of a resurgence in the Indie stores, at least according to this Salon piece. What I wonder is whether this season of discontent with Amazon over its treatment of Hachette might be an opportunity for Barnes and Noble stores to take a look at the Indie stores and how they might operate more as a “third place” than as a big box store for books, media and pastries. I don’t say ditch the pastries– a cup of coffee and a scone are wonderful adjuncts to leafing through newly purchased books! But thinking about how to make this like the neighborhood bookshop might be worthwhile as well.

What strikes me is that the Barnes and Noble booksellers I’ve met also know and love books. And my observation is that most of what people are actually buying in the stores are books. In the small Indie store I wrote about yesterday, they help foster a community of booklovers. It occurs to me that there are many members of the same tribe frequenting Barnes and Noble–and working there. I can’t help wondering if working on that connection could make Barnes and Nobles a more enjoyable place for booksellers and customers alike. And I can’t help wondering if it would enhance sales. I could be totally out to lunch here. What I do know, and maybe this is a function of age, is that I am increasingly attracted to the places where that connection happens.

What do you think? What do you value most about going to a brick and mortar bookstore?

3 thoughts on “And Then There is The Big Box Bookstore

  1. Bob… I love independent bookstores. My favorite one is a children’s bookstore called “Wild Rumpus”. They have a cat and a chicken that roam the aisles, as well as some rodents (I can’t recall if it’s a guinea pig or hamsters) and maybe even a tarantula. (The rodents and the tarantula are safely in cages!) I would encourage anyone reading this to visit Wild Rumpus if you ever make it to Minneapolis/St. Paul. Of course most of us bibliophiles will choose a local store whenever possible. (Wild Rumpus has a large “young adult” section, which comprises about half of my reading list, so I can still justify going to the store even though my children are now 13 and 16. And of course the store can order most anything.) We are lucky enough to live a 5 minute drive (or a 3 mile bike ride… around the lake, no less!) to get there. In fact, after writing this, I feel like making a trip there right now!

    I too visit Barnes & Noble often. I keep a membership for the discounts. And I do always feel a bit torn by going there. I know I could find independent stores that would sell many of the books I tend to buy there. However, Barnes and Noble provides a full range of everything!! (DVDs and CDs are frequent purchases there) And I agree that the staff are almost always very knowledgeable. I have had some excellent recommendations from the staff there. And the gift cards are universally appreciated. I have never had the “hard sell” for the $40 cheesecake there, but certainly the Nook booth at the entrance is almost always staffed. But somehow, frequenting Barnes & Noble seems less “dirty” than buying through Amazon. I try to keep my Amazon buying to specialty books I can’t find at B&N. Despite the fact that it’s not “local”, I still can’t help but be mesmerized by poring through shelves-full of books. And hopping for subject to subject.. just like I am tempted on the Internet…I do keep an eye on the bargain bin for a good find.

    And since we have many authors here in the Twin Cities (Kate DiCamillo and William Kent Krueger being two of my favorites), they often do readings at B&N as part of their contracts. (And the independent stores are much too small to host either of these big names) I do love that the independents host readings by lesser known authors. So I think B&N does foster a book culture that feels a little bit local at the stores I attend here (I am within 15 minutes of 3 different B&N stores!)

    And now I’m rambling. But I always pick Brick and Mortar before internet. And of course I do utilize my local public library heavily!

  2. I prefer indie book stores (which in my area are used books) to the big box chains. But I enjoy looking around ANY book store. You never know what you will find! However, the prices at the big box chains always shock me – since I mostly purchase my books used at indie stores or thrift shops. Paying 25 cents to $4 or $5 for a book is what I’m used to!

    I prefer brick and mortar, as I’m just a tangible person. I like being able to physically hold the book and look through it. Yes, on amazon you can often look through sample pages of a book – but it is not the actual book you will purchase. And when buying used on-line I find that people don’t always accurately describe the condition of the book. They seem to err towards describing its condition as better than it is. Grrr.

  3. Pingback: How I Browse the Indie Bookshop | [BTW] : Ben Trube, Writer

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