Biblioracle: The big box conundrum

Barnes & Noble is in trouble.

Holiday sales were disappointing, down 10.9 percent over last year. Even the Nook is struggling, unit sales also down over 10 percent from a year ago. And Publishers Weekly recently reported on a dispute over terms between Barnes & Noble and Simon & Schuster.


It's somewhere between possible and probable that Barnes & Noble stores will go the way of Borders within the very foreseeable future, and the American landscape will be bereft of big box bookstores.

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This scares me a little. It's not that I have any ingrained love of corporate monoliths, but as a writer and reader, I tend to see Barnes & Noble as a generally positive part of my own personal universe. While digital sales continue to grow, many more copies of my last book were sold through Barnes & Noble than any other outlet. When I want an alternate working space way from home, the store cafes have proven more than satisfactory. There's also something inspiring about trying to write books in the company of so many other books.

And the peanut butter chocolate chunk cookies are truly unmatched.

You can also, you know, buy books there. Lots of them. They don't always have everything I might be interested in, but when I need the immediate gratification of acquiring a book, it more often than not has what I'm looking for. The Barnes & Noble where I live is the only seller of new books of any significance within many miles.

It's strange to think that Barnes & Noble may not be around much longer, when it was Barnes & Noble that was going to destroy the independent bookseller and stand astride the landscape as a colossus. Longtime readers of this space know that I was raised in a bookstore, The Book Bin in Northbrook. My mom started it with three partners when I was a year old and owned it for more than 20 years, until she sold her share 20 years ago. Not long before my mom got out, when Borders and Barnes & Noble moved into The Book Bin's territory in adjacent spaces across from each other on Waukegan Road at Lake Cook Road, it seemed inevitable that they would ultimately make it impossible for The Book Bin to survive.


I was home between Christmas and New Year's, and had occasion to drive past the former Borders-Barnes & Noble intersection. Both stores have been shuttered. The Barnes & Noble moved further down the road into Deerfield. The Borders is in the process of being repurposed as some kind of medical building.

The Book Bin is still open for business.

Barnes & Noble closing their stores would be a blow to both the book business and book culture. Sure, those of us who need books could still acquire them without too much hassle, though we should be wary of Amazon swallowing too much of the pie all by itself. There's also some evidence that the existence of physical bookstores increases the sale of digital books, perhaps serving as a kind of "showroom." The presence of more books means more books will sell.

I am for this.

But it seems foolish to think the end of Barnes & Noble is also somehow the end of booksellers or the end of books. My mom and her partners started a bookstore 40-plus years ago because they thought the village they lived in needed one, or it wasn't a proper village. I have to believe a similar process would follow in the wake of Barnes & Noble's demise.

Bookstores don't show the kind of profit that makes shareholders happy (neither do newspapers), but that doesn't mean we don't need them.

Biblioracle John Warner is the author of "Funny Man." Follow him on Twitter @Biblioracle.

The Biblioracle offers his recommendations:


1. "Oxford Messed Up" by Andrea Kayne Kaufman

2. "The Submission" by Amy Waldman

3. "Behind the Beautiful Forevers" by Katherine Boo

4. "The Silver Linings Playbook" by Matthew Quick

5. "Unorthodox" by Deborah Feldman

— Tracy S., Glenview

An interesting mix here, a little fiction, a little non-fiction, a little serious, a little funny. For Tracy, then, some dark and moving true stories from Shalom Auslander: "Foreskin's Lament."

1. "Dime-Store Alchemy" by Charles Simic

2. "The Angst-Ridden Executive" by Manuel Vázquez Montalban

3. "The Buenos Aires Quintet" by Manuel Vázquez Montalban

4. "An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter" by César Aira

5. "Inventing the Enemy" by Umberto Eco

— Charles H., Rochester, Minn.

These are some interesting, and off-the-beaten path books. A serious challenge, even for the Biblioracle. For Charles, I'm going to recommend the unclassifiable, but moving and gorgeously produced "Nox" by Anne Carson.

1. "The Antipope" by Robert Rankin

2. "Something Wicked This Way Comes" by Ray Bradbury

3. "We" by Yevgeny Zamyatin

4. "Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury

5. "Occupy" by Noam Chomsky

— Sirin T., Istanbul

I'm thinking something political, something philosophical, but also a good, human story that's going to shake you up more than a little. "Disgrace" by J.M. Coetzee.

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