January 28, 2013

Dear Barnes & Noble,

I will even buy these. (Vintage Books/Associated Press)
I will even buy these. (Vintage Books/Associated Press)

I think it is time we staged an intervention. You say you are closing a third of your physical bookstores over the next decade, all while admitting they are not unprofitable? Please listen to yourself.

I am saying this on behalf of all your friends: the Publishing Industry, Book-Lovers Everywhere and — well, pretty much everyone but Amazon.com. We gathered this weekend and decided it was time we spoke up. We lost Borders. We cannot bear to lose you too.

We have been watching you for some time. You are the last hope of the brick-and-mortar bookstore, and at first we were optimistic. We love these places, with the pictures of Great Authors fraternizing on the walls. We attend readings there. We drink coffee there. We go to brick-and-mortar bookstores to do just about everything other than buy an e-reader. This is why your approach, lately, is so worrisome.

Your Nook e-readers are not bad devices, but that is hardly the point. Every week I get another e-mail from Barnes & Nobles beseeching me to buy a Nook. You have reached the point where you are offering me $30 worth of gift certificates. And every time I walk into the store, a voice comes over the loudspeaker beseeching me to buy a Nook in the most piteous tone. Look, I do not come to Barnes & Noble every weekend and purchase several volumes because I am laboring under the misapprehension that Nooks do not exist. I show up and buy because I like physical books. I don’t understand why you are working so hard to discourage this. I understand, in theory, that it is far cheaper to sell books that require no shipping and restocking. But we do not want to buy that sort of book from you. Amazon has more of them, for cheaper. Besides, if I wanted to buy a Nook, I would already have bought a Kindle.

We say this with love. We want nothing more than for you to succeed.

And you are not doing so right now. Your device sales are dropping. December sales were disappointing, even though the store was liberally papered with copies of “The Elf on the Shelf.” The chief executive of your retail group, Mitchell Klipper, told the Wall Street Journal that you expected to close about 20 stores a year over the next 10 years, lowering the total number of stores from 689 (not including college stores) by a third, to 450. And he made a strange analogy to Bed Bath & Beyond about how people did not show up at housewares stores and curl up with their families and a good blender. All in all, the signs are worrisome.

That is why we are staging this intervention. Whenever you see someone you love doing something that is hurting them and you, you feel bound to say something. Absence does not make the heart grow fonder, where books are concerned. Seldom seen and soon forgot seems to be more likely to be the model. Why would you assume that if there are fewer Barnes & Nobles, there will suddenly be more people dashing to BN.com?

And physical bookstores are — as even Klipper noted — not unprofitable. Is getting rid of them really such a good way to save money?

Physical bookstores still serve a vital role as showcases for books. These are places where people encounter many titles for the first time, titles we may decide to buy later, or may just take with us to the restroom and linger over in blatant defiance of the posted signs. We certainly would not know that Teen Paranormal Romance was such a unified genre if you did not display it so beautifully. Their ability to bring us into contact with hundreds of things we did not know we wanted is not to be underestimated. And they help even the online trade. Twenty-four percent of people who bought books from online retailers did so after seeing them in real live bookstores first, according to a 2011 survey. Yes, this is irksome if you are the book retailer, but it’s critical publicity for the book. Lose the showrooms, and the Book suffers.

The market research and media forecast firm Simba Information keeps finding that a decrease in physical bookstores doesn’t drive e-book sales. Instead, it just makes people forget that books are a thing that exists and that you can spend money on. More contact with books and book retailers makes you more likely to buy books. Less does just the opposite.

“All right,” you may justly say, “but if you care so much about physical bookstores, why do you only go into them to buy coffee and sit for several hours using the free wifi without purchasing anything?”

Look, we can change! Just stop closing the bookstores. You have something special! Don’t throw away your birthright in this frenzied dash after the thin pottage of the eBook market! You are all that stands between us and the nightmarish vision of a world where the only place unused books are sold is at Urban Outfitters, as decorative ironic curios, along with vinyl records and toilet brushes shaped like owls. But if this is the only place, it is the place we will go.

Do not push us to that point.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.