June 26, 2011

You've Got Mail

On Thursday my daughter and I went out to lunch, then stopped off at a local B&N before moving on. After being accosted by the Nook salesman, I realized how off-putting my own Nook selling must have been for many of the customers I hawked at. I did enjoy playing with the new B&W touchscreen Nook, but didn't like the salesman's getting a basic Kindle fact wrong in trying to contrast the two. All in all, not a great experience, and one that alerted me to the reality that I no longer enjoy visiting B&N. Since the Borders across the street—there first for years before B&N moved in on their territory with a boutique-like store that remains one of my least favorites—closed a couple of months ago, it's the only game in town, save the big Half Price Books nearby, and as much as I enjoy a bargain, the experiences are not the same.

As I told my daughter over lunch when she launched into Luddite mode about the death of retail (yes, she's only 19), the world changes, and we must change with it. I told her about Lee leaving his job as lead in the Music section because he didn't want to preside over its eventual dismantling. I told her that although I left to earn that abortive MLIS degree, I knew that every Nook I sold would eventually eliminate my job. I understood that the necessary cannibalization of B&N's brick and mortar stores through lower prices at B&N.com would eventually do the same. It just depressed the hell out of me to be in the thick of it.

Well, last night I had an epiphany of sorts. The three of us were watching You've Got Mail for the first time—I'd TiVo'd it probably two years ago—when I realized that what B&N did to locally-owned bookstores in the 90s, Amazon is now doing to super-bookstores like B&N.

Is that a bad thing? Well, last Thursday my daughter wanted two older books. They were available at Amazon and I planned to order them until she asked if we could get them at B&N so she could start one immediately. I did that whole text me if you have them thing...and never heard back. Meanwhile, I went ahead and ordered the books from Amazon, and they arrived Friday afternoon, a full day before we expected them. Now, you may not be able to browse at Amazon, or sit in a comfy chair...oh, wait...you can't do the latter at many local B&N's anymore either. The store I worked at never had the great chairs, and at some point the management removed all customer chairs save those in front of the window at tables near the magazines. Another local store removed most of their comfy chairs; the last three times I visited and wanted to sit and read awhile, there was no place to do so, leaving me feeling bait & switched: "You once invited me to spend the afternoon by providing a comfortable place to sit and read, and now, unless I go spend more money at your cafe, you'd really prefer that I leave."

I'm hoping this disaffection with visiting B&N ends, because as a life-long reader, spending time wandering around bookstores has been a favorite activity. Even throughout my two-years as a B&N bookseller I enjoyed visiting various stores throughout the country as a customer, although I forever straightened up display tables and put books away that others had left behind. But because actually buying at a B&N tends to be a costly experience, and because Amazon's prices tend to be lower (sometimes by a little...sometimes by a lot) than B&N.com's prices, I don't expect it to go away any time soon.


BTW, I did take exception to one scene in the movie. When Kathleen Kelly wanders into Fox's books and sits in the Kids section, a customer asks a salesman about a particular book, and he can't help her because he's simply an anonymous clerk who might well have been working at Home Depot. At least at our B&N, we had answers most of the time because those of us who worked there actually, you know, read. At least at our B&N, that woman would have been offered help and/or a recommendation by the time she landed in the Kids section.


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