I love words.
I was reading the back of cereal boxes at 18 months, and practicing Spanish with my sister at 3. I’ve been reading a newspaper every day for the last 35 years from cover to cover. I love to read all kinds of books, and I’m sure my love of reading goes hand-in-hand with my love of writing.
About 15 years ago, I started a job with Barnes & Noble. After an endless array of soul-sucking minimum wage jobs at restaurants and convenience stores, I finally landed a “real” job. And it was a great job.
At that time, B&N had just started to expand into the area (Pittsburgh) and big bookstores were in ascendance, with B&N and Borders replacing their smaller mall counterparts, B. Dalton and Waldenbooks. (In case you didn’t know, B&N owns B. Dalton, while a few mergers eventually led to Borders Group owning Waldenbooks.)
For a while, it was a great job to have. I’ve talked before about creating the experience, and B&N and Borders were certainly at the forefront of the experience model at that time. It was a new, novel idea (at least for me) for people to come in to a bookstore and really experience it library-style. The idea, of course, was to allow that slow-paced, comfortable guest experience in the hopes that it would encourage the browser to buy.
I think for a long time that B&N encouraged a reading community in the cities it settled in. We felt like booksellers. I loved it so much that I worked for the company in several stores; three of them in Pittsburgh and one in Chicago. Four stores, four distinctly different demographics, and four memorable experiences.
At the end of this year, ONE of those stores will still be open. The first store I worked at closed in 2007, and the store I worked at here in Chicago (at Clark & Diversey) closed last winter. I just read an announcement that a second store in Pittsburgh that I worked at is closing.
What happened? The Internet changed the way people buy books. B&N had a leadership change in the late 90s that changed the company from a bookseller to a warehouse that sold books. And perhaps that day was coming. After all, people treating B&N like a library and spilling coffee all over books and magazines that they never bought may have made us friendly, but it didn’t make us money.
These are all logical reasons for change. But I’m still angry at B&N’s decision.
Why? Back in 1994, I thought I was working for a company that was, in fact, “creating the experience.” I thought it was a place that was both profitable and also a good neighbor.
The store that just recently announced its closing was in a community where B&N’s very existence shut down every other book retailer within several blocks. A similar fate befell the downtown booksellers that couldn’t compete with that B&N location.
Once upon a time, I thought we were stewards of good books and great customer service. I thought that our leadership understood that there’s a strong community of readers who have a strong connection to bookstores and libraries.
Now, I’m ashamed to admit that B&N was, in fact, no better than a company like Wal-mart (which usually sets up shop, annihilates any and all competition, and once the well isn’t gushing oil, disappear never to be seen again).
I understand that nothing is permanent in business, and a company doesn’t owe anything to anyone except for, perhaps, its stockholders. But this leaves a bad taste in my mouth and a big smudge on the memory I had of Barnes & Noble.