I’ve found myself watching the Nora Ephron-directed 1998 rom-com You’ve Got Mail more than a few times, wondering how Meg Ryan would have fared if she had just held out a few more years against the massive corporate bookstore owned and operated by Tom Hanks. Another possibly inconceivable and unmentioned alternative for Ryan’s 1990s Manhattanite would be moving her operation to Brooklyn. An indie bookstore that specializes in books for kids like The Shop Around the Corner would no doubt thrive in a child-friendly neighborhood like Park Slope, or at least it does in the as-yet-to-be-written fan fiction I dream about. The truth is, the story would have had a surprising outcome if Ryan’s character would have just kept going, eventually triumphing over the cold and evil Fox Books after Kindles and iPads came to town. That is, for many, the reality of bookselling today.
The film is especially relevant in light of James Surowiecki’s piece in The New Yorker, “E-Book vs. P-Book,” outlining changes Barnes & Noble needs to make in order to survive after its ebook division, Nook, lost almost $500 million and a CEO just in the last year. Speculation abounds that the company is headed the way of the store’s former retail rival, Borders. A perfectly logical conclusion to draw from B&N’s misfortune is that the current retail climate is good for owners and patrons of places like The Shop Around the Corner, yet a world without Barnes & Noble isn’t something I’m eager to see.
Last year, I visited the plaza that once housed the Borders I haunted as a teenager. The retailer, which filed for bankruptcy in February of 2011 and closed its last stores by September of that year, had a handful of locations around the area I grew up in, but that particular one was special. It was where, between the ages of 14 to 20, I purchased my first copies of books like John Fante’s Ask the Dust, Don DeLillo’s White Noise, and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, as well as albums by The Velvet Underground, The Modern Lovers, Joy Division, and The Fall. That Borders was a gateway to so much culture, and now it’s gone, and I sometimes wonder where today’s weird and curious suburban teenagers go, not just to buy stuff, but to be around those books and records. Sure, you can just turn on your computer and have a thousand suggestions for what to read and listen to — that’s easy. But if you are so inclined, wouldn’t you like to be in the physical vicinity of people who dig the stuff you like? Maybe get away from the computer for a little while and let a real human suggest you buy something instead of an algorithm?
Aside from my personal experience, there’s the serious business aspect: Barnes & Noble does need to get back to being a bookstore, as Surowiecki suggests, but it should also take into consideration how bookstores operate today, while taking steps to help authors as it does with the Snaps short content program, as well as doing an overall better job of targeting and engaging readers. There will always be book lovers who will walk ten extra blocks to shop indie (especially those of us who live in cities), but a big-box store that tries to be more community-based might do the company a lot of good — especially since B&N is last great barrier to Amazon becoming the only big game in town. Companies like Starbucks have adopted this “If you can’t beat them, try to be a little more like them” method by downplaying their corporate branding in bigger markets as indie coffee shops, much like indie bookstores, rise in popularity. Although I’m apprehensive to recommend this strategy on a national level, the approach might work in markets like Brooklyn, Portland, San Francisco, and other cities with more than a few beloved indie bookstores and strong literary communities. Barnes & Noble could help its cause by making its stores a place to go; it could hire people with the express intention of making them booksellers, not team members or employees who aren’t excited about what they’re selling.
These are just a few small fixes and ideas, offered with the disclaimer that I am in no way hoping to see a big corporation triumph over the little guy; I just fear that without that one big bookseller in the market, all those weird and curious suburban kids who don’t have local indies to turn to will have no choice but to click instead of discover.