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.


  1. Maybe bookstores are doing fine in NYC and can afford to focus on personal sales and whatever, but bookstores don’t really exist outside of the mega-metropolitan cities. B&N is really the only option if you live in, say, the MidWest. This is pretty grim news for people who have to fear losing their only bookstore. The Borders loss was less scary because, generally speaking, any Borders had a B&N nearby. Grim day….

  2. “But now where will mentally ill people poop?”

    Where they’ve always pooped — at the public library!

    At least, for the time being.

  3. I dunno, in my town, the library and the B&N are like maybe a half mile apart, both in a downtown area, and the mentally ill seem to really prefer the B&N bathroom.

  4. Anyone with open eyes and a nearby B&N can see what the strategy is.

    With the Nook front and center in every B&N store, it’s about conversion of customers from regular store visits to regular Nook downloads. This isn’t a startling revelation, rather it’s something that’s been evolving since B&N store closures have outnumbered new store openings.

  5. George thats just like how it is in western MA for me. the closest B&N is in Holyoke and the Springfield ibrary is near a soup kitchen so 1+1…I think B&N is a great store and I prefer bookstores over comic shops at times, but the age of giant specialty retail store is coming to a close. B&N should downsize and offer a digital kiosk to order books from in their store and carry a few copies of book to read while you order coffee and desserts and/or read with your kid.

  6. Retina and future advancements in display resolution will turn tablets like the ipad into the e-reader of tomorrow rather than the Nook or Kindle.

    It would be pretty easy for pockets as deep as Amazon’s to transform the Kindle into a tablet, or just give up on it entirely and rake in cash from being a download sales middleman. Barnes and Noble I’m not sure want to get in the tablet business or that they can seize enough digital sales from Amazon. Might be a good time to sell those B&N shares.

  7. B&N has trained people not to go to its stores since 2009. Now people are not going. No big surprise. They have reduced store inventory like crazy since 2009. I’ve gotten to where I don’t even bother looking for a book in a store, because they have so little in stock. Also, the stores charge full price for a book. You can get any book cheaper on web sites, both B&N and their competitors. And, of course, B&N bet the company on the Nook, thinking people wanted to pay them for temporary books, and that isn’t working. (As a developer who ported a program to the Nook, they sure did everything possible to make me want to drop Nook support. Ugh!)

    So, spend years training people not to go to your stores, and they won’t! B&N has done this to itself.

  8. Also BTW, what we’re losing when bookstores close is “discoverability”. If I know a book exists, I can order it online. If I know a book is coming out, I can preorder it online. But what about all the times I just stumble across a book? I happen to be looking for something, and find a book I didn’t know existed. Or, not looking for anything at all. Without this experience of just looking at what’s available, book sales are going to be hurting. Sure, you can look through online inventory at web sites, but you have to know what you’re looking for in advance. Browsing is difficult, and computerized recommendations are not great. Nothing beats just picking up books and looking at them. When all the bookstores close, it will hurt overall book sales.

  9. I live near Nashville, Tenn., which had NO new-book stores a year ago, after all the chain stores closed. Then author Ann Patchett opened a store, so now they have at least one.

    Fortunately there are several large, excellent used-book stores here. I hope they can stay in business.

    Some Guy said: “But what about all the times I just stumble across a book?”

    I know what you mean. Few things are as magical as finding something you didn’t know you wanted, until the moment you saw it.

  10. The Canadian equivalent, Indigo/Chapters is another similar story. Now full of candles, CDs and calendars, it features the cafe and electronic book sales corner.
    It’s still kicking, but I sense a decline in those stores, with more and more people parked in the chairs to read their magazines and manga.
    Why pay for the cow when you can get the milk for free?

  11. Some Guy wrote: “Also BTW, what we’re losing when bookstores close is ‘discoverability’.”

    I used to worry about this. But nowadays I’m finding books mentioned in blog posts and elsewhere that pop up in my RSS feed in essence take the place of books I found idly shopping the aisles at bookstores. I’m not saying they are identical experiences, but they are similar in the sense that finding a particular book is serendipitous rather than intentional.

    I miss bookstores. We still have some good ones where I live, but the number has dwindled over the years. I like the environment of bookstores. But these days, I find myself buying ebooks for prose–they’re so handy, especially when you already have bulging bookshelves. For art books and comics, I still prefer physical books, and I still find myself browsing used book stores open to that wonderful sense of random discovery.

  12. Personally I could see this coming a long time ago and my only surprise is that it has taken so long. BN has always been playing catch up with Amazon for as long as I can remember. While I do have a BN in the area I live in I still do all of my business online. Our first major Bookstore was BaM and they are still holding their own. I will miss them yes when they close bbut not that much. I am a person who when something comes to mind I want to see if there is a book about it. So I have a list and that is it.
    As for used books some may not know but check out thriftbooks.com it’s very affordable and also faster in shipping

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