I'm Barnes & Noble's Nightmare Customer

As for the bookstore, I see it going the way of the record store sometime in the next decade or two: boutique and antique shops catering to collectors and enthusiasts. The era of the big box book store will end.

My local Barnes & Noble is full of warm memories for me. I remember when it was built. For a while in the '90s, I worked there part time. I’ve gone on dates there, signed my own books there, and whiled away many aimless hours there. It’s part of my routine, a thing to do when I need something to do. I’m probably in there once a week, certainly anytime I go by the adjacent Best Buy to pick up a new video game (which is also about once a week). But I honestly don’t quite remember the last time I bought something besides coffee there. Certainly it’s been months. I’ve become a loyal browser, but a bad customer.

I’ve owned and used an e-reader since the original Sony Reader back in 2006. At that point the selection was small and the hardware mediocre. Then I switched to Kindle when the second version came out, by which time selection had improved a great deal and the hardware was getting nice. Now I’m reading 90% of my books on my Ipad, mostly through Amazon’s Kindle app. Those books I’m reading synch up with my Android phone, so I’m never without the titles I’m currently engrossed in (usually two or three at a time). At this point, I don’t buy paper books if I can help it. The lone exception are art and photography books, but those make up a tiny fraction of my buying habits.

When I go into Barnes & Noble or any bookstore, I still take pleasure in being surrounded by books. It’s nice to wander the aisles, scanning covers and reading dust jackets. In days gone by I might pull a book from the shelf and find a chair to peruse the text. Because I’ve got less than great impulse control, I’d end up buying a book at least 50% of the time I walked through the door. I was there and I didn’t want to walk away empty-handed. I was, in short, a perfect customer. But now I don’t take books to the chairs anymore. Now I pull out my phone, scan the cover or look it up on Amazon, and then have free sample chapters sent to my Kindle account. I’ll come away from a visit with three or four samples downloaded and eventually I’ll check them out at home. Or sometimes not. But either way, I leave the store feeling like I’ve “gotten” something and I haven’t spent a dime.

To be clear, I still buy a ton of books. If anything, I probably buy more these days, both because they’re usually cheaper and because there are no barriers at all to purchasing one electronically. A tap on the iPad or click of the mouse and it’s mine, while the charge won’t show up on my AmEx until next month. I think books and writers and some form of publishing industry will survive and thrive on into the future, although I assume the form of it all will change drastically. As for the bookstore, I see it going the way of the record store sometime in the next decade or two: boutique and antique shops catering to collectors and enthusiasts. The era of the big box book store will end.

And Barnes & Noble clearly knows this. They think about these trends a lot more than I do. My local store is changing along with every other store in the country. Their own e-readers are now front and center, with a huge Nook display as you walk in the door, and dedicated salespeople on call to sell or service your Nook needs. And while I was underwhelmed by the first Nook, the new color tablet Nook looks promising (it’s basically a cheaper, smaller, slower Ipad-like device). Step beyond the Nook enclosure and you’ll find a greatly expanded board game section and an even more expanded learning-tools section for kids and teens. The bookstore is looking to sell anything but books, and good for them for trying to get ahead of the curve.

I know I’m an outlier and an early adopter right now. But like your friend (or maybe you) who gave up his CDs for MP3s back in 1999, I’m confident that my book-buying habits will someday be the norm. Many, many friends of mine insist that they love the feel of a real book in their hands, the turning of the pages and so forth. Many of the people who claim this are writers themselves, and I think they’re dramatically underselling the power of their own prose and poetry. Does anyone honestly believe that the feel of the binding makes more than a minor difference to the reading experience? Once a basic (and relatively high) level of legibility is met, it’s the words that matter. E-reader displays are now there, for most people. Add in the adjustable font size, built in dictionary, and immense portability, and the e-reading experience has a distinct innate advantage over print. As displays improve and costs plummet, the digital book’s eventual supremacy grows more and more inevitable.

As an author and a reader, I welcome the change, even as I wonder what will replace that bookstore-shaped whole in my leisure time. Already I spend a fair amount of time browsing titles on Amazon or Goodreads. Maybe I’ll take time to do that at the beach or the park or in a coffee shop. Maybe I’ll just leave home less. One day I might join a tribe of urban explorers who break into long-abandoned big box stores and re-enact the rituals of a bygone era. All of us bad customers can come together and swap stories of the good old days, when the shelves were stuffed with books and browsing involved walking the aisles instead of swiping the tablet’s screen. Part of me will miss them when they’re gone, but more of me looks forward to the rest of the world joining me here in the future.

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