Wednesday, January 26, 2011

B&N Shows our Writers' Group the Door

I received an email yesterday from an old friend. She is the Community Relations Manager of the Bethlehem, PA Barnes and Noble. I've known her for years. I used to work with her, and for nearly five years, she has been the contact person at the store for the  Bethlehem Writers Group (BWG) that meets there 2-3 times per month.

The email came as something of a surprise. She informed me that as of February 1 (the date of our next scheduled meeting) the store would no longer have its upholstered chairs, and the space formerly reserved for meetings would be taken up with more bookshelves. And, since we are a fairly large group, they would not have room for us to meet in the cafe. In other words, it's been nice, but don't let the door hit you on the way out.

I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised. More and more of the floor space in that store has been assigned to other sales: home schooling materials, toys and games, and now a large (and usually empty) Apple-store style space dedicated solely to Nook sales. As a reader, I am glad that the store will be adding back some more space for what made Barnes and Noble great: books.

But as a writer and BWG member, it is sad for me. I started the BWG nearly five years ago at that store, at the request of the then-manager. Unlike many bookstore-instigated writers groups that dwindle after only a few weeks or months, our group thrived. Our numbers swelled to an ungainly 18 members by our first summer, but has settled down to a much more manageable 8-10 members per meeting. In 2009 we published a compilation of Christmas stories by our authors: A Christmas Sampler: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Holiday Tales. Being from Bethlehem, what could be more natural than a book of Christmas stories? We were enormously proud of it, especially after it won two awards from the Next Generation Indie Book Awards: best short fiction and best anthology.

We were pleased to hold book signings in 2009 at a wide range of book stores and libraries, but never happier than when we did two signings at our "home" Barnes and Noble. We did many more book signings this past holiday season, but our B&N would not host one in 2010. It wasn't personal. My friend assured me they were not holding any book signings between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. And I hear from my friends in Sisters in Crime that they're finding the same thing to be true at their B&N stores, but not limited to the holiday season.

Although the store's only association with us has been to announce our meetings in the newspaper and put it in their newsletter, we felt a loyalty to the store--more apparently than they felt toward us. None of this was at the store's discretion, of course. Such decisions come down from above. But considering the relationship, it would have been nice to get a phone call--and maybe an expression of regret at the severing of our relationship.

That aside, I can't help but wonder at B&N's corporate decision making. I remember growing up in the Boston area hearing people speak in hushed tones about the Barnes and Noble on Washington Street as if it were for book lovers like visiting the Vatican might be for devout Roman Catholics. When I finally had a chance to visit it, I could understand their awe. Many floors filled with books--every book you could imagine--and even a few records. Yes, it was long enough ago that there were records; it was even before Starbucks, if that is imaginable.

After moving from the Boston area it was a while before I lived near another Barnes and Noble store, but eventually one came to my town. Now I live within an easy distance of three.

When I contacted another B&N to see if we could move our group meetings there, the CRM told me "we are no longer advertising or reserving space for large groups." I understand that the economy has hit all booksellers hard, and while faring best among the bricks and mortar book purveyors, B&N is also feeling the pinch. In the changing dynamic of publishing, it is trying to get ahead of the curve, or at least keep up. I'm not sure, however, that they are going in the right direction.

It seems to me that there are two reasons for book people to remain loyal to a big-box bookstore.

  1. If you want or need a particular book right away, the big box store is more likely to have it on the shelf than a smaller, independent bookstore, even if it costs a little more than Amazon, or even
  2. They have heretofore been wonderful places to stop in, browse, sit, read, meet with friends, attend a book signing, and yes, have a cup of coffee. As the character of Joe Fox said in the movie You've Got Mail about his big-box Fox Books, "I said you could sit and read for hours and no one will bother you. I said we have a hundred and fifty thousand titles. . . . I said we were a goddamn Piazza! A place in the city where people can mingle and mix and be." 
With the exponential growth of e-readers, the first of these is becoming less and less a factor. If I need a book right away, chances are I can download it on my Kindle for less bother and less money than getting into the car, driving over, and buying it at the store. 

Now it appears that B&N has lost sight of the importance of the second reason for buyer loyalty. While they might have more books on the floor, I doubt I will buy as many books at B&N as I did when my writers group brought me there 2-3 times per month. 

We all have to change with the times, and the Bethlehem Writers Group will adapt, find a new place to meet, and continue to thrive. But some of what I loved about my old B&N is gone, and I will miss it.

What do you think? Is B&N doing what it must to stay commercially viable? Or are they alienating some of their best customers?


  1. Records? I had no idea Barnes and Noble was so old!

    All jesting aside, I'm sad to see our association with B&N come to an end. I have a lot of fond memories of the rt 33 store, and now I'm honestly wondering if I'll ever visit it again. It's not the closest bookstore, or even the closest B&N, to my home so I doubt I'll go there without the writers group meetings.

    I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to say goodbye, but at the same time it'd be sad to go there knowing we're not welcome back.

    So, I guess I have to weigh in on the side of alienating customers. Whether that keeps them commercially viable, only time will tell.

  2. They are certainly diversifying. I received an email from a couple of days ago advertising wine.

  3. I guess we made the mistake of believing that there is such a thing as a corporate entitity with a social conscious. Wouldn't it be lovely to have a proletariat version of the English gentlemen's club, where we could schmooz, read, write, and sup?

  4. Hmmm--a gentlepersons' club--now we're talking! We don't need a golf course--just a library with wing-backed chairs where we can work among books. With wi-fi, of course. And no cigars.

  5. As a member of the BWG I feel it is important to throw my vote forward in the B&N discussion. I attended the very first meeting at the Rt.33 store, and have gained confidence as a writer because of it. Am I disappointed that we have been told there is no room for us? Yes! Do I think they have made a mistake? Yes!

    My first Barnes&Noble experience was in NYC, and walking into that huge building with at least two floors was exhilerating. Imagine my excitement when a store came to my area in Pennsylvania. Since its grand opening I have been a loyal customer. Now, when I walk in it looks like a Nook selling toy store.

    Frankly, I'd rather order from my Kindle than go back. Asking our BWG to "step out" after five years, goes beyond disappointing. It is an insult. I once thought B&N would be a great place to work! Not anymore. How sad.

    Kudos to the librairies who, despite adversity, continue to be an advantage to our communities.

  6. It's sad. Very sad. I bought a lot of books there for myself and as Christmas gifts while coming to the BWG meetings.

    Without authors there are no books, to say that they are not welcome is A huge oversight. There was a time when authors struggled to survive,then they became celebrated and now we are heading back to obscurity once again. Publishing houses are closing down, bookstores are banning signings and meetings and libraries all over the country are closing due to budget cuts. Sad.

  7. Update: The BWG will hold its meetings on 1st, 3rd, and 5th Tuesdays in Room 204, Reeves Library, Moravian College, Bethlehem at 7 pm--at least for the remainder of the spring semester.