In a mostly enraptured piece on the state of comics ca. the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Fest 2013 I wrote
Now, as I’m a fatalist at heart, I feel like there’s a pretty good chance that the van we’re all riding in is going to stall on the railroad tracks just as a freight full of chickens bound for slaughter is barreling down at us, and we’re all going to get killed in a horrible accident just as a surprise shock and badly written ending. But until that happens, I’m just going to sit back and enjoy this day.
Now it seems that the tracks are books and the train is Barnes & Noble, as rumors of store closing get shape and form in this WSJ story which you may be able to read in this link. Short version, the last remaining book retail giant plans to close as many as a third of its stores over a 10-year period—although that may be an optimistic projection, as well. Slowed by the rise of digital and a lack of new malls, B&N opened only two stores in the last fiscal year, and its end-of-year profits were well below what was expected. While the Nook ereaders have been a bright spot, sales there have slowed as well. So a leaner meaner BN seems to be in the cards.
“In 10 years we’ll have 450 to 500 stores,” said Mitchell Klipper, chief executive of Barnes & Noble’s retail group, in an interview last week. The company operated 689 retail stores as of Jan. 23, along with a separate chain of 674 college stores.
[snip] Mr. Klipper said his forecast assumes that the company will close about 20 stores a year over the period.
Over the last decade B&N has averaged closing about 15 stores a year, but up until 2009 it was also opening 30 stores a year.
Klipper remains chipper about the revised plan. “It’s a good business model. You have to adjust your overhead, and get smart with smart systems. Is it what it used to be when you were opening 80 stores a year and dropping stores everywhere? Probably not. It’s different. But every business evolves.” He says only 20 of the stores outlets are losing money, and closing them will send profits bouncing back.
The story makes mention of the B&N as a destination where you curl up and read a book, a model which conjures images of George Costanza and his “bathroom book.” What was that we were just saying about the ’90s?
We’ve been polling a few comics folks on the coming B&N contraction and most sounded resigned but not fretful—like Borders-pocalyse, this is a fairly slow moving train and there’s plenty of time to push the car off the tracks. Comics publishers are actually in a much BETTER position than book publishers this time out, as they have the whole comics shop network to fall back on, at least until the digital Pac-Man eats that as well.
Personally, I think retail bookstores will hang on for a while, even when ebook sales become the larger part of the business than print—surviving bookstores are putting the customer experience first and making the hand-to-hand transaction the basis of the business, not just shifting units.
It’s something a lot of B&Ns we’ve been in of late seem to have forgotten. The look and feel of the stores is unchanged since the late ’90s, when browsing bookstores with a cup of Starbucks was a place to meet people and get out of the house. Now we have OK Cupid and Starbucks itself with an iPad or laptop. The last one we went into here in NYC was a dark, gloomy, cluttered throwback to an even older era of bookselling. It’s a model that only a place like The Strand can pull off.