We were in the Christiana Mall, because that’s where the Target is. The reason we were at Target is because it was the most expedient way to buy a lot of the things we need. As much as I prefer buying from mom-and-pop shops, locally-owned stores, or even regional chains, we need a lot of things. We came from Finland with two suitcases and a carryon bag each. That breaks down to clothes, laptops, and things we couldn’t quickly or easily replace. Anyway, to get back to the point of this story, since we were at the mall I decided to buy a book so I had something to read that wasn’t on a screen. Lots of bookstores and libraries in Finland, but limited selections in English. Bookstores got weird while we were away.
Specifically, Barnes & Noble got weird. I first worked for the chain back in 1988 or ’89, when I lived in Philly. I worked for them again in the early 2000s in Tucson. The last time I was inside one of the stores was in Albuquerque in 2014, before we left for Finland. All of those locations had the same feel. There was a consistent methodology, and a common philosophy, to how things were set up. I mean, they’re a chain. Of course there was a sameness.
Bookstores Got Weird
I knew that they were on the verge of going under recently, and had been bought out by a British company. Naturally there were going to be some changes. When you’re teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, you tend to jettison what’s not working, elevate what is, and try new things. There is logic to this. I understand that. It’s also inevitable that covid changed certain business practices, from things done to accommodate hygienic practices to a shift in what sells and what doesn’t. I grasp the sad fact that fewer people read these days. I also know that Amazon has snapped up a lot of market share, both due to Prime delivery and Kindle downloads.
This store looked sort of like a Barnes & Noble, but it did not feel like a Barnes & Noble. Downstairs was nothing buy the café (which was booming), the bargain section (which was bigger than any I remember), the gift section, and new releases. I thought new releases might be a good place to start. What I was expecting was a fixture for bestsellers, new fiction, new non-fiction, and some staff recommendations. What I got was chaos and visual noise.
It’s probably a covid thing, but I came up against a giant wall of random new releases. A biography of Katherine Johnson (not that one) next to a cookbook next to a novel. No rhyme or reason, no organization, just fixture after fixture of books. It was overwhelming and not at all appealing to browse. I decided to move on an seek out the fiction section, which was upstairs.
Not a Good Sign
From past experience, I know that what gets put upstairs are destination departments (kids and music, typically) and categories that don’t sell as well. It wasn’t surprising to see that the music department had gone the way of the dodo. The children’s department at the Coronado Mall store in Albuquerque had burst out into a toy department 7 years ago, so I wasn’t shocked to see that trend had continued. Fiction upstairs, though, left me feeling a little queasy. It meant that backlist fiction wasn’t a strong revenue center.
I would say almost half of the fiction section overall was fantasy, science fiction, and young adult. Other genres, mainly mystery and romance, made up most of the rest. General fiction, which used to be the largest category, was pitifully small. About the same size as the entire Religion section, including Bibles and religious fiction. Bookstores got weird, indeed. No judgment on what people prefer to read, but it not only runs contrary to my past experience of B&N, it doesn’t match up with Finnish bookstores that are still general fiction-heavy.
Mass Market Murder
For some reason the thing that disturbed me most was the almost complete lack of mass market paperbacks. Katie noticed it to. I was thinking about grabbing a “beach read”, a cozy mystery or romance novel or spy thriller. Nothing. There had been nothing downstairs in new releases, and there was nothing in section. After a long hunt I located one display, mostly empty, with a few mass markets spanning all genres.
Mass market books still exist; I’ve seen them in grocery stores, pharmacies, and airports. I’m going to guess that the margins on mass market are low, while the return costs are high, so B&N’s new overlords decided to drop them. I know they’re labor intensive; we used to strip off the covers and just send those back for credit, and destroy the rest of the book. Sad but true fact.
Solutions and Sadness
There aren’t a lot of other bookstores here. There’s apparently a thriving used bookstore down in Newark, about 8 miles and a one hour bus ride away. A new book-and-coffee shop is opening soon down at the end of our block, within walking distance; I want to give her my business, especially if she can order things for me. I’d rather pay a bookseller to order it than go online myself. That’s my final option. I really don’t want to give my money to Amazon, but increasingly it seems like I won’t have a choice. Bookstores got weird, and they stopped being bookstores. What replaced them are soulless algorithms and warehouses run as sweatshops.