Save Barnes & Noble! Let that be a rallying cry. It should be tweeted, liked on Facebook, and spray-painted in graffiti. Let it preface and conclude our every communication because this is a very serious matter. Amazon is the evil empire! And Barnes & Noble, our last nationwide chain of bookstores, is teetering on the verge of collapse. Their financials are dire indeed.
It may seem impossible that this massive company — a pillar of shopping malls everywhere — could abruptly vanish but it could easily happen. Remember Borders Books? That was our other nation-wide chain and it ceased to exist in 2011.
More books are being published and sold than ever before in all of history. It isn’t a problem of the basic product becoming obsolete. The problem is how that product is being delivered to the consumer. Amazon has crashed into the market like a Sherman tank. It is running roughshod over the competition and fast on its way to creating a book monopoly.
Amazon is a near monopoly on books
Imagine that — a monopoly on books! Can you think of anything more dangerous to the free exchange of ideas in a democracy — anything more destructive to our basic values? (Other than President Trump, that is).
Amazon’s spectacular success is based on the combination of laziness (yours and mine) and convenience — a sure-fire formula. Any book you want can be had cheaply and quickly. And it is delivered to your door in a day. No need to get in the car and use up limited free time to go to a store. You don’t even need to get dressed to shop.
Further, Amazon isn’t trying to make a profit on books. It is quite willing to sell at or even below cost in order to get you into its marketing system. It can supply you with everything else under the sun.
I admit that system is invaluable, and very useful. For example, the water filters for my Cuisinart coffee maker are not available in any local stores. The only place I can get them is Amazon. If the day ever comes when Amazon and Cuisinart get into a snit with each other, I will have to buy a different coffee maker. A change of coffee makers does not threaten the republic. But that kind of monopoly power over what we can read certainly does.
Barnes & Noble has been mismanaged
Part of the problem does stem from poor management decisions at B&N itself. Its many suburban locations and the rather lavish stores it has built are expensive. It has tried to be both an upscale gift shop, coffee house and DVD seller all at once. Yes, it still devotes considerable space to DVDs — a product now found largely in thrift shops.
Any successful business person will say you can’t be everything to everybody and you shouldn’t try. The most successful bookstore in New York City is The Strand. B&N might look to it for a model.
First, booksellers run the Strand — a family born and bred to the business. They know the market inside and out. Next, they own the building. They do not have to worry about greedy landlords (the cause of the demise of most other New York bookstores). Next, they sell books — not every other kind of knick-knack. And they have 16 miles of bookshelves packed with everything you could possibly want in print.
The store is not stylish or elaborately decorated. There are no places to sit down and idle away hours perusing books you aren’t going to buy. Coffee is not available. However they have a carefully vetted staff that knows about books. When you ask where Proust is, they are not going to send you to the cookbook aisle.
Had B&N followed this formula the situation might be different. Though, perhaps, not different enough. There is still the laziness and convenience factor to contend with. The Strand has the advantage of a massive consuming public living right on its doorstep. It takes a lot more effort to get to a suburban Barnes & Noble. It is an effort that must be made however.
What can we do?
We can not permit one giant corporation that is utterly unresponsive to general public opinion, much less the needs and opinions of minorities of any kind, to control what gets published and what does not. Even if Amazon were a public spirited non-profit dedicated to the free exchange of ideas and information, it would be a bad and dangerous idea. As Amazon is presently constituted, it will inevitably be a horror show of suppression and censorship. Publishers already quake in their boots when Amazon raises an eyebrow.
The moral is simple — do not buy your books from Amazon. Just say no! Get off your lazy butts and go to your nearest B&N.
If that is impossible, at least buy online from B&N or from ABEbooks, the online portal for independent booksellers. Even better, if you have a nearby independent bookseller, support the store as well.
Every dollar you spend that way is a vote for the survival of the free press. You may think it really doesn’t matter where you acquire the latest tell-all, but it does folks — it really does matter — a lot.
Toby Grace is Out In Jersey magazine’s Editor Emeritus.