Saturday, January 12, 2013

Where do you buy your books?

I used to work for Barnes & Noble--and I really loved it. I was actually paid to be surrounded by books and readers. (By "readers" I mean people who read, not devices that contain electronic files of books.) Not that retail work is uniformly great. I had my share of disgruntled customers and holiday shifts, but for the most part, it was work I enjoyed among people I liked.

The perks were great. Employees earned full benefits if you worked 30-hours a week, and all employees, regardless of the schedule worked, received the employee discount and the opportunity to borrow hardcover books. (I really loved the perks!)

I left after a couple of years, but I still look back on it as the ideal retail job--if there is such a thing.

When I worked at B&N, outside of the cafe it sold only books, magazines, music and movies, and a few "gifts for writers" including journals, pens, bookmarks, greeting cards, etc. After I left, I saw a Nook-selling section take over where the magazines used to be, and watched as the welcoming upholstered chairs were removed to make room for games and educational toys. I noticed the backlist books were harder to find. Books that had only been out a year or so were nowhere to be found. And I missed the old just-books feel of the place; the store had lost some of its soul.

When the Great Recession hit, it became apparent that bricks-and-mortar bookstores were in trouble--especially independent stores. When Borders went out of business, it proved big-box stores were vulnerable, too, but I didn't see it as a harbinger.

I still went to my local B&N to go to the cafe, meet friends, pick up a gift, or just browse. It wasn't the same, but it was still fun to visit. But I noticed that the store wasn't as busy as I remembered it being, and that managers were handling the routine tasks I used to do. (When things aren't busy enough, salaried managers are called into service on the sales floor to cut the shifts filled by employees paid by the hour.)

I should have realized that B&N, too, was fighting for its survival. Its corporate headquarters recently announced that retail sales dropped 10.9% in 2012, and Nook sales dropped 12.6%. And I am part of the problem. After leaving the B&N workforce, and losing the employee discount, I shopped for my books by price rather than convenience. Amazon often had the better price, so I joined Prime and shopped online. When I got an e-reader, it was a Kindle.

In the meantime, B&N has closed many of its less-profitable stores, and plans to close even more. I seriously doubt my book budget could keep my local B&N afloat, but I'd really like it to survive. So far, the stores in our area are still there. But who knows for how long?

And what will that mean for book buyers? Will Amazon, already the book sales leader, become a virtual monopoly? Or will the market adjust, as it often seems to do, to create new sources for those who hope to buy books?

Since monopolies are bad for consumers (and suppliers like publishers and authors), I certainly hope B&N survives. But I have to admit--I still love my Kindle.

What do you think? Is there any way to save bricks-and-mortar bookstores? Would it be cataclysmic for them to disappear?

And, where do you buy your books?