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Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011 08:48 pm

Discount-price cultural life

Barnes &%u2008Noble is poorly. What does that mean for Springfield?

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Iva Werner reads to her daughter Ella, 3, at Barnes
PHOTO BY GINA FERAZZI/MCT

Back in March of 2009, Barnes & Noble signed a new five-year lease on its store in the strip mall at Wabash and Veterans where it has been doing business since it opened in 1993. The decision was a modest surprise, since word was out that the store might move to the long-vacant and larger White Oaks Cinema property. It was not apparent at the time that the important question was not whether Barnes & Noble’s Springfield store might leave its old store, but whether it might leave Springfield.

People can pass the time in many pleasant ways in a well-run Barnes & Noble. (I have spent time in B&Ns in a half-dozen cities.) Borrowing policies perfected by such celebrated independent booksellers as Kramerbooks in D.C., Powell’s in Portland, and Barbara’s in Chicago, Barnes & Noble offers reading nooks, talks by visiting authors, music and coffee. They are excellent venues for quiet dates, and the larger ones function as private libraries that are more genteel than their public cousins.

What people don’t do at these stores, apparently, is buy many books. In August Barnes & Noble, the nation’s largest bookstore chain with well more than 700 stores, put itself up for sale. It is still profitable, but the writing was on the wall.

 It was only in 1993 that I wrote a column for this paper lamenting the success of the then-new book superstores. In Chicago, Crown’s and Barnes & Noble had recently been joined there by the up-market Waterstone’s and Borders chains in ganging up on Kroch’s & Brentano’s, the venerable local independent chain. Such stores, I warned, were as doomed as the Mom and Pop corner grocery.

However, I also noted (with more acumen than usual) that signing leases in strip malls in small non-university cities of the rural Midwest was proof that the book superstore market was already mature and verging on the senile. Borders, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, has begun closing stores such as the one in downtown Highland Park, Ill., that it opened only in 2003. Barnes & Noble is treading water in the hopes that its electronic reader, the Nook, will pull it safely back to financial dry land. Both profits and same-store sales of the latter drooped again in the second quarter of 2010, driving down its stock price, even though its online operation looks healthy, and analysts are wondering whether the leases on all those mall stores will be honored.

It would be a bad thing for Springfield if Barnes & Noble shutters the local store. That is not what I believed in 1993. I changed my mind in part because the world changed. The trends in book selling since 1993 confirm Krohe’s Law, which states, Things could be worse – and probably will be. Amazon launched its website in 1995. Ever since, readers did not have to wait for the remainders to be shipped back to get discounts on new books. The ebook – reading’s transistor radio compared to the book’s home stereo – has millions not buying books on paper at all, leaving the bricks-and-mortar bookstore having to peddle games and gifts to make ends meet.

Losing Barnes & Noble would not materially reduce Springfield’s access to books. But while the web is a cheap way to find cheap versions of the book you are looking for, it is a lousy way to find the good books you weren’t looking for because you didn’t know they existed. That’s what perusing a well-stocked shelf of a library or bookstore can do.

Then there are the social effects. As I noted 17 years ago, book superstores don’t sell only books, or even mainly books. They sell ambience, which has found eager buyers across the country. College-trained baby boomers in particular are enamored of the sanitized Bohemianism and ready-to-wear intellectualism that the book superstores offer. To those many Springfieldians who have had no opportunity to experience it at college, the atmosphere at the big bookstores is stimulating and, yes, improving.

The Barnes & Noble, in short, is the kind of place that Springfield did not have until it opened, and is very unlikely to have again if it closes. Mourn the loss of the independents, by all means, but the fact remains that Barnes & Noble is the only bookstore of consequence in many a town like Springfield, and its closing would be nothing but bad news for book culture. (B&N store closings in other cities have sparked demonstrations of protest.) The city will be deprived of a civilized corner in which to think about and talk about books (not to mention a place to gawk at young people who look as if they, like the books on the shelves, were shipped in from cities far from Springfield). People who are happy with a discount-price cultural life will not mind. Everyone else will mourn.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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