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The incredible shrinking Barnes & Noble

Big box bookstores such as Barnes & Noble were once considered a major threat to the health of the book-selling industry, offering discounts, massive selections and lattes that independent bookstores could not. Now things have changed: Barnes & Noble is the last national bookstore chain standing, and it's getting smaller ... and smaller ... and smaller.

In 2008, Barnes & Noble had 726 stores. It currently has 689 stores and in 10 years, it plans to have just 450 to 500.

That's what Mitchell Klipper, chief executive of Barnes & Nobkle's retail group, told the Wall Street Journal. In an article published Monday, Klipper said that Barnes & Noble would ramp up closures of existing stores while significantly cutting back on opening new ones, making for a loss of an average of 20 retail stores per year.

While that explains the numbers, it doesn't really address the underlying issue -- the growing importance of e-books, which are generally seen as threatening traditional brick-and-mortar retail sales. Barnes & Noble's chief rival, Borders, went bankrupt and was liquidated in 2011.

Print sales fell 9% last year, while e-book sales continue to rise. Many digital watchers -- including an unnamed publisher quoted in the WSJ piece -- have predicted that e-books will soon reach 50% of total book sales in the U.S.

"The next two years will go a long way in defining the bookseller's future, by clarifying how fast the print market is shrinking," writes Jeffrey Trachtenberg at the WSJ. "Bertelsmann SE & Co.'s Random House, the world's largest publisher of consumer books, says e-books now make up about 22% of its global sales, up from almost nothing five years ago."

Of course, Barnes & Noble doesn't sell only print books. It developed the Nook e-reader and tablet, for which it sells e-books from its website. And most people who read e-books also read print books -- 88% did of those Pew talked to for its "The Rise of e-Reading" survey.

Barnes & Noble's retail stores do sell the Nook, but that's not what Klipper points to as setting the chain apart. He told the Wall Street Journal that less than 3% of the company's stores lose money -- because they're a destination for people in a way other retailers aren't. "You go to Barnes & Noble to forget about your everyday issues, to stay awhile and relax," he says. Shopping for, say, kitchen appliances is a different experience.  "When you go to Bed Bath & Beyond, you don't sit down on the floor and curl up with your blender and your kid."

Striking a balance between cozy family reading time and the convenience of e-books is the challenge Barnes & Noble must face -- even as it has fewer sites to get it right.

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