After administering the oath of office to Vice-President Joe Biden, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor rushed to New York for an appearance at Barnes & Noble, because, Jon Stewart said, “She wasn’t sure it would be there later.” A joke? More like a brutal truth. B&N is our only national bricks-and-mortar book retailer, and yet its Christmas was wretched, with sales down 10.9% from 2011. The way to prosperity was supposed to have been its e-book reader, but the Nook unit saw revenue fall 12.6% compared to the holiday period a year ago. Tero Kuittinen, of BGR.com, spoke for many when he recently wrote that “Barnes & Noble is about to be demolished by Amazon.”
More troubling news came last week, when the Wall Street Journal reported that the retailer will close a third of its superstores over the next decade. (A spokesperson insists this isn’t news; B&N “has not adjusted its store closing plan whatsoever.”) And if that diet doesn’t work? The obituary will surely say “B&N was killed by Amazon.”
Not so. B&N’s troubles predate Amazon. They start with its decision to open superstores in a culture that sees the average American adult read a book a year. And its long history of unforced errors continues with its decision to close many of those stores instead of creating more inviting locations. What B&N should do is what bureaucracies and battleships generally can’t: make a 90-degree turn at full speed.
B&N’s best hope for survival is to get halfway out of the book business—it should abandon its legacy identity, reconfigure its mission and merchandise, and trumpet its rebirth. Start with its identity. B&N’s stores in shopping malls are huge. The animating idea: “We’ve got any book you could ever want.” That’s a flawed strategy. We can handle too much choice in the cereal aisle of the supermarket because the brands are evergreen and heavily advertised, but miles of aisles in a bookstore are a turnoff. It’s easier to use Amazon as a default: a quick search, a scan of its reader reviews, a One-Click purchase, and free shipping. Then there’s the mixed message of B&N’s Nooks-and-books strategy. The Nook displays are given considerable real estate at the front of the store.
This does not generate excitement; on a busy day, the Nook area looks like a slow night at an Apple store. But even worse, the Nook cannibalizes B&N’s bricks-and-mortar business—each Nook sale tells the customer she need never return to a B&N store. But why go to B&N or buy a Nook in the first place? There’s an app for that. Yes, you can, for free, download Nook for iPhone and Nook for iPad. I have no idea how B&N can solve its Nook problem. But I’m quite sure B&N will do its customers a favor by stocking many fewer books. “We have every book” needs to become “We have a book for you.” B&N can never be the nation’s largest independent bookstore, but it can imitate what has proved so successful for independent bookstores. This means handselling. Handselling requires a staff of passionate readers. Happily for B&N, English majors are not highly prized these days. Assembling a staff of bookish concierges is the least of B&N’s challenges. What would take the place of the books that will leave B&N’s shelves? A souk. A bazaar, dense with curated merchandise.
The model: the legendary “Street of Shops” that the late Geraldine Stutz introduced at Henri Bendel in 1958. Where would the goods come from? The artisans of Etsy. Food both international and locally sourced. Technology selected by Wirecutter.com. Minibranches of stores like Williams-Sonoma. Pop-up shops of online merchants.
John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, has observed that our most dedicated readers are the millions of teenagers known as nerds. Kids are hardwired to want a hangout; merchants are hardwired to see kids as a problem. The result: kids find community online. But with in-store programs that take kids seriously, B&N could lure teenagers from their computers.
Barnes & Noble has one thing going for it that Amazon doesn’t. Most American malls have the charm of factories. But if B&N could break away from formulaic, color-inside-the-lines retailing and transform itself into a destination, it might discover that not every suburban family is permanently addicted to a flat screen. Regrooved B&N stores could become genuine gathering places and community centers. They might even become successful businesses.