In over a decade of patronage, I cannot recall ever having a single successful conversation with a staff member (other than "These books, please.")
The bookstore receiving 50% of retail price for providing fungible copies of books, bitwise identical to those offered by all other bookstores, without even a scintilla of value-add, has struck me as something in urgent need of radical corrective capitalism.
By comparison, Amazon recommendations are routinely as good as my sister's, their customer service has been top-notch, their prices are cheaper, and the Kindle has transformed my experience with the medium and quintupled my consumption. I am in no danger of confusing Amazon with another shop that starts with A.
The problem with big box booksellers is that they can't possibly win on customer service, because their customer base is too diverse, and no single employee can begin to satisfy the customer service needs of such a broad range of tastes and needs until they've spent years both learning the store's inventory and building a mental model of customer types and their preferences. But it's a retail job and the rewards are meager, so there's little incentive to become this ideal bookstore employee, though they do exist; the employee you do end up with is either a thwarted English major who despises you (this was once me, I'm sorry to say) or the avid reader of bestsellers -- and if that's not a good fit for you, too bad.
The achievement of Amazon is that they've actually done a decent job of automating what an ideal generalist bookseller does.
(Specialty bookstores are another story. In those cases, you can more readily assume that the preoccupations of the bookseller and the customer will align.)
I get tremendous value from being able to flip through a book, check out the index, get a feel for the quality of writing. I love being able to wander around and randomly bump into things I might otherwise never know about.
I like browsing the magazines, seeing what's out there.
Whether that justifies the increase in cost is another matter, but there is tangible benefit to the physical B&N.
Brick and mortar bookstores add value. They just add it to the process rather than the final product. They shelve the book for an indeterminate amount of time, just on the chance little old you happens to come along and buy it. (Instant gratification has value: for the next three days you will have your book instead of waiting for shipping.) A retail store also provides a different and arguably superior browsing experience through multiple books: you get pre-sale access to 100% of the content.
There's also the magazine section. Try finding a website that lets you browse through all of Forbes, Cigar Aficionado, and National Geographic. The bookstores have created a profitable model that doesn't work online, making magazines free-to-read in order to sell coffee.
Sure, if you are laser targeted on what you want, and either don't mind the shipping wait or consume only e-book content, Amazon is far superior. But there is a real place for the brick and mortar store. They're not just anachronistic dinosaurs, they fill a still-extant niche of the capitalist market.
I wonder if you could operate a bookstore more along the lines of a museum? Or maybe that would be called a library.
Barnes & Noble employees are a little better on average, in my experience. I've actually gotten some good recommendations there.
Their books were overpriced, of course, but they actually sent out 30%-50% off coupons weekly, bringing them basically to Amazon's levels - so while I did the bulk of my book-buying on Amazon, I really enjoyed dropping into the store every week or two and browsing for something fun to buy.
For many stores across many industries, having enough stock of popular items subsidizes the ability of the store to stock rarer and less-often selling stock.
I probably spent 30% of my student loans on books at borders because I'd have a hard time waiting to get home and buying from amazon. Plus like you said the 30% coupons made buying from amazon a waste of time. They changed that for borders bucks which I think was a major mistake. Bring back the coupons.
Cover out sells a lot more books, so the publisher will insist on certain books being displayed like this, or prominently on 'new book' stands.
Sometimes the publishers pay for this service, but more often it's blackmail - "put our new diet book cover out or you will get the next Harry Potter book a week later than Amazon"
Borders was a revelation when it opened. I'll miss it if it disappears.
However, this site lists some current coupons:
I never buy anything at Borders without a coupon.
Borders in San Antonio has a large selection of said topics, and I'm impressed. The only thing about Borders that bugs me is the lack of sitting areas.
I wonder if their demise would actually be good for a lot of independent booksellers whose customers would avoid B&N.
I know several datacenters are in San Antonio. MSFT, Rackspace, etc. Also, the NW side has a medical center, a university, and several banks (USAA's HQ is a mile away from it).
In short, the NW side is an affluent area.
I felt somewhat bad about just handing the Cashier the book and leaving the store, but it was a really long line.
It's brilliant. Though I usually try to buy some things in the shop too, if it's a place I want to survive.
* (just show it to them if you have a smart phone).
Borders is a retail store heavy company, and they haven't made any significant changes in their store in response to competition from online stores. That's a huge red-flag and is nobody's fault but theirs.
And as long as you aren't damaging the books, and as long as the store isn't so crowded that you're discouraging other potential customers, the store looses absolutely nothing by having you there. In fact, they always gain something - there's always the off chance you'll see something and decide you don't want to wait for it to ship.
Or for those who want a meaningful preview of a book before buying.
Over the years, I've saved much more money by avoiding purchases of books I imagined I would like, than I've saved by buying from discount warehouses.
Libraries are one way of doing this, but for new technical books, my local Borders was a go-to place.
I will still feel bad about it. With the Borders coupons, I usually ended up spending no more than I would at Amazon, anyway. And I really like the experience of browsing. I often end up with three or four books spread out in front of me, dipping into each one, comparing their style, presentation, TOCs and indices, etc...
The ones that have put any effort into a pleasant environment, local books, reading events etc are doing better than they have in years. Remember HN are not typical of the general population when it comes to book buying or ebook reading.
Over time the store has ditched its foreign newspapers. Used to be able to buy Russian language titles in there, but not anymore. Few tech books on music/theater. Biographies heavily loaded toward current celebs.
But they've got holiday calendars by the gobs.
I liked doing business there 'cause I got instant gratification and it was a comfortable place to browse. But they've gotten rid of the chairs and tables too, and now the only place to sit is in the cafe. Many's the time I'd read a chapter in an easy chair, get up and purchase the book so I could take it home with me. But now all your browsing has to be on your feet - I get the feeling that management thinks bookstore shelves are like supermarket shelves. "Hello Dear? Would you stop by on the way home and pick up something from the Ender series?"
They had big community book fairs, they ran the only coffee shop that was open late for a mile in any direction, they brought in local music acts.
In '97 the owners decided to retire and sold the whole operation to Borders. Borders ran the store for about a year or two and then shut the whole place down when a huge strip mall development containing a Borders store opened a mile away.
In hindsight I guess they planned that new store all along, and bought out the little guys because they didn't want the competition from someone who actually knew how to run a better bookstore.
A 1996 article: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1154/is_n4_v84/ai_181...
I stopped buying books when they closed. B&N and Borders were useless substitutes for me.
I always assumed I just missed something along the way. Or I'm just too young to have really compared them.
Personally I still do most of my book shopping at Borders and B&N, because once I decide I want to read something I'd rather pay the extra few dollars to read it now rather than wait for it to arrive in the mail. Though they both aggravate me with the unskippable script which their checkout chicks are forced to go through... no, I don't have one of your loyalty cards.... no, I don't want one of your loyalty cards... no, I don't care what great benefits it may give me.
My understanding was that Bezos chose books for Amazon after writing a list of things people could carry in one hand, and decided Books was the biggest market on the list.
In trying to find my source for that on Google, I came across plenty of other explanations for why he chose Books as the topic to sell - they may discount my previous belief, but none of them make the case that he loves books or that books led to the business. All seem to claim that the need to create an internet business came first, books were a means to an end.
I wonder if back then he realistically considered the possibility that either or both could someday be delivered electronically?
They replaced their information counter with a computerized system that failed miserably in helping me locate a book I wanted. The book in question was Carlos Ruiz Zafón's 'The Angel's Game'. My friend had shared about the book over dinner and some of us had decided to get a copy. We went down, searched for it using the computerized system, was informed that the book was available (at least that's what the system seem to be saying). It could not be found anywhere on the shelves (where the system said it was supposed to be); more importantly, none of the staff could help us. In short, the new information counter was useless.
In the early days, the information counter was run by people who knew and loved books. The proof of that was:
1. They could always help locate the book physically.
2. If the book wasn't in stock, they would also be spot on in recommending a similar book that would interest me. It was the second point that got me buying a couple of extra books.
The lost of knowledgeable counter staff in hindsight was indicative of a culture shift in Borders from that of being a place where people passionate about books gathered to a place where shit got sold and it just so happened to be books.
The second incident was noticing that valuable store space was being used to sell toys and kitchenware. Yes, kitchenware in a bookstore.
In the end, I got 'The Angel's Game' and Carlos Ruiz Zafon's 'The Shadow of The Wind' at a local store http://www.booksactually.com/. I recommend this store to anyone who love books and is in Singapore. Clear showcase of how domain knowledge and intimate customer relations can help a local institution compete against the scale and supposedly lower prices of steam rolling multinational companies.
The depictions of Sempere and Sons are certainly romanticized, but they still point to a desire for knowing someone who really, deeply knows books. If Borders once had that desire or those kinds of people on staff (even in corporate), the OP in the Atlantic indicates they no longer do.
Which of the two books did you prefer?
One of the things that we did was "don't give up" customer service. We absolutely did not give up on finding something until the customer did. Google was new in those days, and I also remember multiple "oh my gosh, that's freaky" moments from customers coming in with the vaguest, weirdest clues and still somehow finding the book for them.
I remember going into a Borders around that time and noting that the help wasn't nearly as persistent, but I went into a Borders about a year later and thought: "Hey, they must be copying Joseph-Beth now!"
Borders partnering with Amazon does not give Amazon a local presence within the meaning required for Amazon to be subject to that localities tax authorities.
Amazon buying Borders (the company) would have the same result, because Borders would remain a separate taxable entity.
Amazon buying Borders' assets (i.e., the stores, inventory, etc) would be the only situation in which Amazon would acquire a local presence allowing the locality to tax Amazon.
Another indicator of retail inventory shortcomings is the "special order" process. It's been several years since I've special ordered a book from a brick-and-mortar retailer, but it generally involved a two-week wait, and you were often requested to examine the book on the spot without leaving the cash register area. If the big bookstore chains have removed the friction from this process, I don't know about it.
In fact, it seems that Barnes & Noble and Borders have responded to Amazon's inventory advantage by actually gutting their selection further and dedicating more space to tchotchkes like Michael Bublé CDs and chocolate truffles. A shame.
Would there be any benefit to a virtual bookstore, where you can first-person-browse the shelves? Sounds silly, but you get some of that serendipitous discovery. It would probably need ridiculously high resolution for book spines to be readable from the distance one normally browses at.
Of course, all that could be done from home if you have an espresso machine.
If they can solve this problem the way Powell's in Portland has (one giant bookstore with everything in stock and two or so subject-specific bookstores), then I'd still be their customer.
I wonder if this is the way to go for other niches too.
Let me put it this way. You're looking for a new CEO for a fashion outlet. You have two top candidates: one who has an encyclopedic knowledge of shoes, dresses, designers, and how to spot a knock-off from the genuine article. The other guy ran a very successful chain of grocery stores.
Now, on one level, selling clothes is just like selling anything else -- groceries, toothpaste, power tools. You have your marketing, your in-store experience, etc. But your grocery store guy will lack the one thing the fashion guy has: namely, an intuitive sense of what makes an otherwise rational consumer spend far too much on some shirt just because it says "Armani" on the collar. Your fashion guy knows who his customers are, who they talk to, what they read, and what motivates them to open their wallets. That does not mean the fashion guy will do a better job, but he does have a distinct competitive advantage over the grocery guy.
What happens when you don't have a guy like that at the top? Well, Apple nearly tanked after they pushed Steve Jobs out the door in 1986. Jobs' replacement, an ex-CEO of PepsiCo, simply didn't understand the Apple customer the same way Jobs did.
Hence "book people." People who understand why people buy books, and how books are different from socks and celery.
Your fashion guy knows who his customers are, who they talk to, what they read, and what motivates them to open their wallets.
Bulletin board material.
Might I pimp my previous comment on an earlier Borders-related thread? ... http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2056531
This is the lesson I've got from the fall of Borders and other big retailers: they didn't seem to know which business they were in. Borders was in the retail and hospitality business, not in the books business. Because of an identity crisis, they did a poor job at both.
Instead of trying to survive by ignoring Amazon, they would have probably done better to go into the grocery, apparel or restaurant business.
On the other hand, I literally worked for a company called Book People, and let me tell you, you don't necessarily want "book people" running a business.