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Observations from a Big Box Bookstore

Like so many other people, my book buying habits have changed over the past few years. From home morphed into shopping from home, and Amazon made it so very easy. The gift of a Kindle 2 in December of 2009 didn't completely stop my paper book habit, but it's made impulse purchases oh, so easy and limited those purchases (about half of my total book purchases of late) to

Yet somehow, I expected my favorite bookstores to still be there, and remain unchanged, when I wanted them because there's absolutely nothing like walking through aisles of attractively-arranged books all vying for my attention. I love the simple joy of exploring whatever title or cover grabs my attention, of plucking a book off the shelf and reading the first few lines to see if it's for me.

Yesterday, I had about forty minutes to kill when I stepped into a suburban Barnes and Noble, my fingers already tingling with delicious anticipation even though I have a stack of reading awaiting me at home and very little anticipated reading time in the coming weeks. But yesterday, for the first time I can remember, I left a bookstore empty-handed. I also left it struck by the ways book-buying habits have changed the stores themselves.

There are far, far fewer books, with none of the depth and backlist mass market shelving I've always appreciated in the larger bookstores. Numerous formerly hot-selling authors of my acquaintance, authors who used to be able to count on shelf space for their backlists were entirely absent, and the sections for romance, mystery, and science fiction/fantasy have been pared down to the bone. The one book I picked up thinking to buy, a fantasy omnibus of three connected novels, was done in such tiny print and on such cheap, grayish paper stock, that I reluctantly put it back down, knowing my computer-strained eyes couldn't hack all 700 pages of it. :(

There did seem to be a lot more emphasis on hardcover fiction, often with beautiful covers and lovely, thick pages. (I adore the feel of those deckle-edged editions, don't you?) For teens and young-at-heart readers, there was a nice Manga section (which appears to have grown) and a much larger teen fiction section than I remember. (And lets hear it for the publishers of young adult novels for making hardcovers a lot more affordable.) But what really surprised me was the amount of space given over to the Nook, the coffee shop, and especially to non-book products, right up to a large section for Legos and other toys.

Compared to the crowded, backlist-heavy shelves of the independent bookstores I've visited lately (all of which carry both new and used titles) this store seemed very sparse and open. Sadly so.

While I understand the big-box, high-rent chain bookstores are struggling to find a sustainable model in the shifting market, I can't help mourning the loss of the stores that I remember. But since, after my dinner meeting, I came home to order yet another title (a surprisingly affordable hardcover off of Amazon, where I could read the first chapter and a boatload of great reviews from the comfort of my own bed) I realize that I have only myself to blame.


Suzan Harden said…
And maybe that's why I'm having so much difficulty when I go to the local B&N to write. Imagining my book on the shelf used to inspire me. *sigh*
Joni Rodgers said…
I hear ya. For years, B&N Champions was our family's main Friday night hangout for Scrabble, coffee, and browsing -- and we never walked out without at least four books. Then we moved, and B&N Woodlands became our haunt. Then B&N Woodlands moved into the mall. Yuck. We switched to playing Scrabble at Wunsche Bros.

That said, you're right that we create the culture with the small choices we make, and I'm resolving to better support my local bookstore.
I *hate* going to the B&N at our mall, too. I went all the time when they had it where you could actually get parking. And no, I will *not* pay to valet my car for a run to the bookstore. Pffft!

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