Barnes & Noble didn't originate the idea of the book superstore, but the chain has claimed it as its own. It has opened more of them than anyone else, literally hundreds -- all so uniform that, once inside, it's hard to remember what state you're in. The formula is by now well known: a large number of books in all fields, a cafe tucked in a corner, several bookcases of inexpensive remainders and the chain's own reprints, ample shelves of newspapers and magazines. There are chairs to check out a book before buying it. Failing that, no one minds if you sit on the floor.
With missionary zeal, the chain has opened outposts in small cities that never had a good bookstore before of any type, an act that is surely a net gain for the culture. In the suburbs, which have tended to have only mall bookstores, Barnes & Noble's mere presence serves notice that the multiplex isn't the only viable entertainment option.
Things are more problematic in the cities themselves, where Barnes & Noble is frequently accused of driving less-nimble local competitors out of business. A central question for the industry is whether Barnes & Noble will expand the readership for books or merely gather unto itself the one already there. If it's the former, everyone will benefit, starting with the chain itself. If it's the latter, big trouble will result.
Clearly plenty of people like Barnes & Noble, just as they like McDonald's. True book aficionados tend to turn up their noses, pointing out that the greater number of titles available merely means that, for instance, every one of James Michener's titles is represented, instead of only a few. Meanwhile, quirky but worthwhile titles from small presses aren't as much in evidence as one would hope.
-- David Streitfeld