November 15th, 2010 / 6:10 pm

Barnes & Noble Made Me Sad Last Night

I was in a Barnes & Noble last night for the first time in years. I don’t live close to bookstores so I mostly buy my books online, at AWP, or at independent bookstores I happen upon during my travels. What I love about B & N is how there are so many options. If I feel like helping myself, there’s a book for that. If I want to read a trashy romance novel with a cheesy dude on the cover exposing his cleanly shaven chest, there’s a book for that. If I want to read up on starting my own business or Kabbalah or the Kama Sutra, there are books for that too. While I was in B & N last night, the whole place felt shrouded in a bit of sadness, as if the whole idea of the brick and mortar bookstore was on its last legs. I don’t really think this is the case but there was something rotting in that store. There were plenty of people milling about but they were mostly lounging in the cafe or reading quietly in the plush, oversized chairs probably covered in bacteria, or browsing the stacks and stacks of books muttering things like, “I could do better than this.” There were these other two guys in the Entrepreneurship section engaged in a hopeless little discussion about how they were going to get rich! Quick! That really happened.

The very first thing we encountered upon entering the store was a huge kiosk shilling the Nook manned by two well dressed young men in natty suits who didn’t bother to even try to woo us with the wonders of the e-wonder. I think they could smell my Kindle on me or maybe I gave off a “Fuck You! I Like Books” vibe, I’m not sure. It was telling to see how the long slow surrender to electronic books has encroached upon bookstores themselves because there was also a Nook display at the Customer Service kiosk in the middle of the store and other Nook reminders sprinkled about the place. We get it! You’re selling an ugly thing called a Nook.

One of the things I love about independent bookstores is that the people who work there generally know about books. They are familiar with recent and forthcoming titles. They can make recommendations. After I did the real life version of ego googling by searching for books I’m in (I surely did), I went to the Customer Service kiosk because I was looking for The Instructions by Adam Levin.

Let me back up. Earlier that evening I attended the Stories and Beer (or is it Beer and Stories?) reading in Urbana, IL hosted by Aaron Burch, writer and editor of Hobart. (If you’re ever in town, check this reading series out. It was really great. Everyone read for five minutes or less which was great and each reader was actually introduced in a non-boring way with humor and wit and also there was intro music so it all felt kind of rockstar-ish even though we were in a random bar on the prairie.) At some point The Instructions came up and someone I was sitting with said it was really good and I hemmed and hawed about the size of the book because I don’t feel like having to hold it for 1,000 pages but then as I was driving out of town, I saw the Barnes & Noble rising out of the blighted suburban landscape just before the depressing sight of a Drury Inn and thought I would see if they had a copy.

The employee at the Customer Service kiosk hasn’t even heard of The Instructions (heartbreaking) and they didn’t have a single copy in the store (staggering). That’s kind of weird, right? Champaign Urbana is a decent sized college town and The Instructions has gotten a fair amount of press. It’s not unreasonable to assume there’s at least one copy in the store. I was deeply saddened by this state of affairs. As I walked around the store, I was overwhelmed by how much nonsense was being sold. I have been wrapped in the safe, sexy cocoon of independent publishing for far too long. It’s a frightening world out there. On one table, there was a Voldemort wand being sold for some ridiculous sum of money next to various box sets of the Harry Potter series. There were gift cards and discount books, in their sad remaindered graveyards. There were novelties of all kinds, and a special addition Monopoly set I gave serious thought to buying. There were stacks of thrillers about the end of days or government conspiracies or federal agents fighting the good fight all featuring exhausted and flawed keepers of the peace all trying to do the right thing. I took a moment to browse Shannon Doherty’s new memoir/random ass list of twaddle. It was terrible. As you know, I’ll read anything and love just about anything book-related. Those $7.99 mass market paperbacks are fine by me as are celebrity memoirs but I try to have a balanced literary diet and I left Barnes & Noble feeling like if the whole of your book buying experience happens in a Barnes & Noble, you’re not getting a balanced diet. You aren’t even getting the opportunity to know your reading diet is unbalanced.

The literary magazine selection was also sad. It made me profoundly depressed. They barely had anything save for a lonely copy of The Southern Review, a Paris ReviewBlack Warrior Review, Oxford American, an inappropriately shelved McSweeney’s 34 in the anthology section, and the usual array of writer’s magazines with headlines emblazoned on the cover offering 21 Tips to Create Memorable Characters or 33 Ways to Find an Agent! I bought two of those magazines so now the selection is even crappier. I walked around some more and thought about the Vouched Books project where Christopher Newgent brings his table of indie books and magazines he can vouch for to various literary/arts events around Indianapolis. There’s a lot to be said for bookselling on such a small scale. I’ve seen Christopher at work at a reading in Indy and he was never without interested people hanging around his table. People seemed really excited to be able to talk to someone about potential books and magazines worth buying and reading. One young man I saw was totally excited to learn about writers he had never heard of. I saw him walk away with like three books. As booksellers struggle with how to stay alive, I think part of the conversation should center around how we can make people feel connected to books. I didn’t feel a connection to much of anything as I walked around Barnes & Noble, but hours earlier, at the reading, talking about books and writers and stuff, I did feel a connection. I did feel excited to read something new. It’s hard to feel much of anything in a huge, nondescript squat of a building crammed with too many books holding too little substance.

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  1. goner

      I think it also depends on where the B&N is located. I used to work around the corner from one that is located in Union Square in NYC. They have (or had, since I haven’t been in a couple of years) a table set up where they had recommended left field/indie type books for sale. That’s actually where I bought I Looked Alive by Gary Lutz (the first edition). I also once saw Macaulay Culkin give a reading there, which was obviously 100 times better than seeing most people read.

  2. Brad Green

      What you find in Barnes and Noble are the types of things that make beancounters happy. 1000 page novels rarely make beancounters happy, unless it comes with a big platform.

  3. jereme_dean

      Roxane, I love your innocence but you really do live in a bubble.

      B&N isn’t about books. B&N is a corporation.

      I shouldn’t have to explain it past that.

      I hope that company rots and dies as fast as possible.

  4. jereme_dean

      Also, I love the title to this post.

  5. lily hoang

      I think there’s something to be said about earnestness. Too many readers/contributors here scoff at earnestness, but there must be something important about it, no? (smile.)

  6. jereme_dean


  7. lily hoang

      ah shucks.

  8. karl

      the local B&N around here, Santa Monica 3rd Street Promenade, has the most arbitrary and impossible to predict selection of lit mags that varies every quarter: one month they’ll have the normal school, threepenny, green mountain, ninth letter and noon, and then next month it’ll be ASF, Nimrod, Open City and ploughshares. they always have paris review and zoetrope, sometimes tin house. but i can’t figure out how they are getting their lit mags. i try to find a system or a reason for their selection, and i’ve even asked, but nobody seems to know anything. they say these are the magazines that the distributor brings.

  9. Sara H

      B&N does leave one feeling dissatisfied, and yet, I keep wanting to be proved wrong. Sadly, sometimes it’s the only way for me to get Q Magazine. I can’t afford the import price on a full subscription, and Hasting’s quit carrying it, so to B&N I go when it’s an issue worth owning. I agree that the lit mag selection is at times randomly selected.

      My husband gets frustrated with their photography magazine selection. There’s always a dearth of crap that’s just wanking over the latest gear, but occasionally they have Black&White or PDN. However, when you don’t see, for ex, PDN and inquire about it, the staff just stares at you. Same thing happens when you ask when the new issues of the import music mags come in (since they usually lag a month behind). Someone there knows, but it’s never, ever the first person you ask.

  10. christopher.

      Thanks for the kind words, Roxane.

      Seriously, anyone who ever feels discouraged about the state of literature in today’s society should spend an evening with me at Indy’s First Friday celebration. People are excited about the books on the table; people are sad when they don’t have cash on them to buy; they recommend that I should get an iPhone with a Square so I can take their digital money in exchange for books; they ask if I will be back next month, and when I say yes, they say, “Oh good. I’ll bring some cash next month.”

      And, I’ll be honest, when I was first stocking my table with lit journals, I thought they’d be hard to sell, but they’ve actually turned out to be one of the easiest things to sell. When you bill them as “samplers” and drive the point that they contain the most current literature being published today, people get really stoked on them.

      Books fucking rule. People just need to know where to go to find them, because honestly, most people only know of 3 venues: Amazon, B&N, or Borders.

  11. Roxane

      I’m not innocent, Jereme. I am well aware that B & N is a capitalistic endeavor only interested in the bottom line. I am simply not yet as jaded as I could or perhaps should be.

  12. Scott Thoroughly

      perhaps you two should meet halfway and say “naive”?

  13. jereme_dean

      Don’t argue with me. :)

      Your innocence is the attribute I like the most about you.

  14. Amber

      This is very, very true. For instance, there’s a Border’s in Madison, Wisconsin right near the U that is better than many indie lit bookstores. I used to work for B&N–and sadly, the way they set up their stores is absolutely proportional to the demographic in the neighborhood and what people buy. So the Barnes and Noble near my place in DC is great, the one in the touristy part of town is godawful and stocked with mostly patriotic crap and flag postcards. Roxane, you’re so right about why Vouched is amazing. I wish we had something like that here.

      But dude, seriously, how you gonna be all insulting about the nook, when you are always promoting your Kindle? It’s the same dang thing, and my nook is quite pretty. It has a color touchscreen! :) Barnes and Noble’s just trying to survive, and while the nook stuff everywhere may seem vulgar, at least they’re still promoting books and not Build-a-Bear like Borders.

  15. Roxane

      I love to argue and I’m not trying to pick a fight here and I appreciate that there is an attribute you like most about me but I’m just not innocent and its kind of…insulting to think that giving a damn is innocent and if it’s not insulting, it’s kind of sad. I give a damn despite what I know of the world and I certainly hope the day never comes when that changes.

  16. Roxane

      KINDLE 4 LYF!

      I actually gave mine away and use the Kindle app on my iPad like a real elitist.

  17. Amber

      Ha! Okay, I have to admit that I’m probably going to buy one of those new Kindles, much as I like my nook, because the new Kindle’s e-ink looks SO GOOD and it weighs nothing. The nook is kind of heavy. But it’s still pretty.

  18. jereme_dean

      My assessment of your innocence is not based solely off this post.

      Nor is my assessment a reaction to the fact that you care. I am glad you care. I care too.

      Was this your first time in a fucking B&N or something? Your depiction is ageless. Did you not go to Waldenbooks when you were younger?

      Nothing has changed. The state of a corporate entity has NO fucking correlation with the state of literature.

      What are you expressing care for in the article?

      The book hustle Chris is doing has NO bearing on the state of B&N.

      The eReader is not the death of B&N. They are a corporation. They want money any way possible. Going digital only helps their profit margin. Enough with the romantic notion that this is the end of our precious era. Literature is not in peril. Its current delivery mechanism is failing.

      Like I said before, I hope that company rots and dies as soon as possible. Any “good” achieved from its existence is a byproduct of its greed.

      Okay, so you aren’t cool with “innocence”. What dumb word would you like me to use in its stead?

  19. NLY

      Really I used to get a lot of my books at B&N, and good books. If the argument is that the store should stock more underground works, then fine, but you can get your education underway with books B&N stocks.

  20. Charles Dodd White

      Maybe she simply dislikes your asshole-ish tone.

  21. jereme_dean

      Have you ever found a Dalkey Archive book in a B&N?

      Has anyone? I’m curious.

  22. jereme_dean

      Probably Charles.

  23. darby

      i saw a couple of copies of Witz at Borders. i was surprised.

  24. christopher.

      You’re welcome to franchise! And by that, I mean, sell your own favorite books from your own table in your own city. And if you really want to, I’d be glad to help you get in contact with people, but really, it’s as simple as emailing publishers and saying, “I want to sell your shit.” They’re pretty responsive to that.

  25. Matt Cozart

      yep. they seem to carry a lot of them actually.

  26. christopher.


  27. danny

      my nearby b&n (paramus, nj) has a decent selection of indie books in general. i bought scorch atlas there, picked up from a big shelf at the front of the store, best new releases or something. right next to tao lin. the lit mag section was exactly like roxane’s description.

      on the other hand, when i lived in philly, the b&n near rittenhouse had a wonderful lit mag section (magazines in general) i was more than happy to hang around in.

  28. M Kitchell

      I have gone to both Barnes & Noble and Borders in the TOWNS WHERE DALKEY STARTED (Normal, IL) AND NOW EXISTS (Urbana?, IL), and have rarely found Dalkey books in either. Central Illinois ain’t New York City.

  29. Roxane

      Location is everything. The B & Ns I have been to in larger cities generally have a nice selection but out here in the provinces, my goodness, the selection is anemic. It’s crazy that they don’t carry Ninth Letter in the city where NInth Letter is produced.

  30. Hank

      I found “Witz” at a Borders in Fairview Heights, IL.

  31. Jtchandl

      Borders in Bloomington has a copy of the instructions. It is really big. Like, you can’t help but be drawn to it. I knew nothing about it a month ago, was just looking through the books (not buying, mind you, I just like to get a bunch of books that I might buy, then look through them while sitting in those comfy chairs you referred to until that immediate impulse is overpowered by my own guilt at spending money in the first place, and spending it at borders in the second) when I saw it, its huge blue self just sitting there between other, lesser books.

      In the acknowledgments he thanks George Saunders for “getting him into Syracuse.” I thought that was maybe interesting, depending on how literal that should be taken. The first five pages were enough to make me want to keep reading, though…I haven’t got around to that (see book’s page number).

  32. Jtchandl

      I thought you said O magazine for a minute there…that would have been great.

      Yeah. The thing is these places want to hire ‘book lovers’ but that isn’t really their first priority. So they often just get college students or people that don’t really know what they’re doing, who aren’t really book experts in any sense and end up knowing nothing, being completely inept, and having to rely on online searches. In the end, it’s pointless for them to even be there.

      The same thing happens, though, at any store where you need product of which you have a basic to advanced understanding. Really, the worst place I’ve experienced is music stores like Guitar Center. Granted, they at least try to get people who know what they’re talking about. But really, from my experience, no. Also, computer stores. It’s like these people get a basic overview of how a product works and are then expected to be able to explain the ins and outs. For people with no background, it probably works. But anyone with a real interest not just in the product but also in maybe the ideas or structures or whatever behind the product are going to be disappointed, because all these workers know is the surface level, what they can see with their eyes, what is advertised, what they’re willing to expose themselves to, which probably isn’t much, or nearly enough to be competent in their work.

      But of course if they were experts, they’d probably expect to be paid more. So it’s really just a vicious cycle of mediocrity that I guess works well for these companies.

      Having said all that, I did work at borders for two years. It was really horrible. At least I liked books. But not every book. So, that part was sort of bad too sometimes. I have a vast, shallow knowledge of authors and titles though, which helps me out at parties quite often…

  33. Chet

      going to barnes and noble for literature is akin to going to starbucks for coffee

  34. Anonymous

      Glad to hear some went outside the system.

  35. letters journal

      Wait, Starbucks sells coffee. What.

  36. NLY

      Yes, I have, but it depends on the store. The store up at the 66th street stop on the 1 train has an amazing selection. The store in Union Square a little worse. The store down in Prospect Heights is mostly equipped for the high school students who come in for the Starbucks after schools close. I imagine the same proportional merit is standard throughout the corporate book world, and I agree, only selling what your customer already buys discounts what they might buy if given the chance.

      I used to think, the sharper distinctions aside, that for the most part these individual stock selections were built around a stable core which was B&N’s great strength, and advantage. You always find the best books in used bookstores, the most surprising ones in carefully tended local shops, but you -always- found what you needed in B&N. That’s why I used it, that’s why everyone used it. I learned that was not exactly a standard truth, though, for B&N installations across the country. I’ve been in one that didn’t even have a poetry section. For the most part, yes, there is a stable core to be relied upon, but it’s not as tight or as guaranteed as I thought.

      Apart from that simple fact, though, I think there’s something more odious at work in what Roxane is writing about. You know how Wal-Mart used to be this great idea that was done well and everyone loved it and was so happy that it had come into town? Then the climate changed, somehow (later we learned it was a corporate takeover). I think something of this nature has occurred, or is occurring, in B&N. The time of my greatest familiarity with the store was when its popularity had really hit full stride, in the early-to-mid 00s, and it really was a great environment that was good to spend a lot of time in (I know because I did). Now when I enter one I feel a similar pall over it. The prices aren’t as amenable anymore, it seems, or is that just me? The people are about as amenable as the prices. The selections don’t seem as thought out, and it seems like the whole formula is stagnating, or worse, being contaminated (maybe we’ll hear about the business politics some time down the line).

      I hesitate to -dismiss- the institution (I never liked Borders anyway), because of the good it did me, and the good it still remains very capable of doing, but I am sure I smell something wrong with it.

  37. jereme_dean

      hahaha. Good luck on your endeavor!

  38. christopher.

      Luck? Where we’re going, we don’t need luck.

  39. Rebekah

      I love Christopher. The end. Vouched is fantastic.

  40. Rebekah


  41. jereme_dean

      Glad to hear some went outside the system.

  42. C. Mittens

      I know B&N and Borders are the enemy (although, aren’t all stores capitalist endeavors?) – but here’s something – my hometown, which never had more than a Waldenbooks and and then no bookstore for at least ten years has a Barnes and Noble that seems to be very popular with the people of my hometown. Even if they don’t stock indie books, I’m happy they’re there. Also, the Borders in Largo, MD was, I believe, the first bookstore to open (and remains the only bookstore) in Prince Georges County for (if I remember correctly) something like 20 years.

  43. C. Mittens

      I bought a copy of Gravity’s Rainbow at B&N this summer when I needed it on short notice. I don’t go to Barnes and Noble often, but I saw lots of literature on the shelves when I was there. I’m not sure Gravity’s Rainbow is the equivalent of Starbucks coffee – maybe? It’s reliable? What?

  44. letters journal

      Barnes and Noble published hardcover editions of David Markson’s ‘Malcolm Lowry’s Volcano’ and that Barthes anthology edited/introduced by Sontag.

      Why did they do that? Did those books actually sell? I bought remaindered copies really cheap.

  45. letters journal

      What did Gravity’s Rainbow taste like?

  46. C. Mittens

      Like shit in Brigadier Pudding’s mouth. Maybe B&N literature is like Starbucks.

  47. Guest

      The B&N on the crummy side of Tulsa has Rachel Ray’s “Stuff You Can Smear On Crackers While Sitting Watching TV” on display up front, while the cool side of town’s store has a stack of 1st edition Tender Buttons in the discount bin so the shitocity is dependent on location blah blah blah bullshiiiiiit blah blreg.

      People: you’re already on the internet. Buy books from the goddamn publisher. Why wouldn’t you? If you have a cool bearded bookstore or book event thing which fosters some book-ass community, great. Seriously. GREAT. Do that, too. Or, if you live in a town without a really cool bookstore, but you like bookstores lots, and you’re just going to read a SKIPPY DIES or some such shit anyway, by all means go to B&N, look at the pretty 19-year-olds who dressed cool for the bookstore, pick up whatever thing FSG spent The RCF’s yearly operating budget advertising and read it in one of those puffy leather chairs. FINE. But don’t buy it! Don’t buy anything! Not even a drink.

      If you love a thing, support that actual specific thing and people/things who also love that thing you love, not some giant corp who arbitrarily happen to sell the form of the thing you love.

      Every comment after jereme_dean’s “I shouldn’t have to explain it past that.” ought to be a ‘like’ of “I shouldn’t have to explain it past that.” instead. If BN could double their profits by selling Hemingway diapers or Nabokov slap bracelets, they wouldn’t hesitate. Regardless of what great books you purchased from it, B&N is a monstrosity. It is not in service to books, books are in service to it. Product. Don’t get all nostalgic.

  48. Guest

      I guess you could even read a good book in the leather chairs. Hypothetically. I’d actually suggest buying the good ones, though. From the publisher. Or at least a thing like SPD.

  49. christopher.

      I will respond to this mathematically.


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