First, they came for Borders.
Now Barnes & Noble is taking its share of the hit.
The mega-bookstore chain announced Thursday that it was thinking of spinning off its Nook eReader business from the rest of the company in the face of mounting tides of red ink. The shares plummeted 24 percent in the morning’s trading.
This time, it’s personal.
On Dec. 31, the Georgetown Barnes & Noble shut its doors.
To say that I had an intense, personal relationship with this bookstore would be a severe understatement of the case. I went there so often that the homeless men who always hang out in bookstores — Leviticus-Reciting Escalator Rider, Confused Man in Beret, Inebriated Santa — knew me by sight.
But it wasn’t hard to see where things were headed. Bookstores, to mangle a Mark Twain quote past all recognition, are places where people browse and don’t buy. Some people have the audacity to go to bookstores with their smartphones and do comparison shopping by price, which seems almost cruel, like sitting in a singles bar and checking Match.com.
Yes, everything you want is available more cheaply online and probably in better condition. This is a cruel fact of modern life.
But I hoped it wouldn’t end like this.
Mega-bookstores are more than just a place where you come to drink coffee and ignore the books. They also have free Wi-Fi. And if you crouch in the children’s section, you can stay for an extra half-hour after closing to use it!
Evidently, this has dawned on Barnes & Noble, so it’s headed online like the rest of us. The eReader business is certainly where the growth is, but Barnes & Noble has some serious catching up to do. It’s in the unenviable Blockbuster position — brick-and-mortar giant trying to go toe-to-toe with a Netflix, except that those in the Netflix position, when it comes to e-reading, take a less ham-fisted approach to public relations.
Amazon has a strong offering with its Kindle, and it’s priced so cheaply that Amazon actually might lose money when you buy one. Perhaps a better strategy for Barnes & Noble would be to buy a lot of Kindles very quickly and hope Amazon implodes.
But there’s more than just bookstores at stake. Whenever another one of my dear bookstores closes, I always try to come up with a compelling reason for books, physical books, to go on existing as anything other than a novelty object.
It’s harder than it looks.
The Internet makes it hard to make the case that you actually need people, for crying out loud. Tell me that you’ve been to a party of people younger than 30 that didn’t devolve into everyone sitting rapt in front of a computer playing YouTube clips, and you will be lying.
And books have all the defects of people. There is no video component, eventually they wither and decay, and the ones that were popular when you were young are accused of being racist. They are fragile. If you leave them in a dark room surrounded by moths for more than a decade, eventually they fall apart on you. And if you attempt to set one on fire, people tend to pass remarks.
E-books have most of the qualities of books and few of their defects. You can read “Sins of a Wicked Duke” on the subway without tucking it into a copy of “War and Peace” first. You can buy Teen Paranormal Romance books without having to walk into a bookstore section labeled Teen Paranormal Romance. Sure, “Teen Paranormal Romance” will show up in your browser history, but most of modern life depends on the assumption that no one will ever see your browser history.
It’s not just that e-books are spreading at the expense of their paper cousins. Reading — at least the sustained, book-reading variety — is an antiquated pastime being shoved aside by the vast riot of the Internet, where you can read the word-count equivalent of Moby Dick in celebrity-fashion commentary, and no one can do anything to stop you.
Independent bookstores are dying, too, of course. But I never really liked them. They were too small, the books all had that used-book smell, and the proprietors coughed. My heart was in the mega-bookstores, with their long aisles of shining best-sellers.
Even if Barnes & Noble succeeds in stemming the ebb of cash, those stores may not be with us much longer. I miss them already.
The Internet is all about the customized, personal experience that gives you what you want. How about an experience that gives me what I don’t want, for a change? That was what mega-bookstores were for — the things you didn’t know you wanted, the chance to have your attention grabbed by something no one had any reason to suspect might interest you.
And the free Wi-Fi didn’t hurt, either.