This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

28 April 2003 — Am I the only one thinking it's as if Barnes & Noble isn't that interested in selling books anymore?
      No, I'm not. To wit, a letter from an editor at one of the big three who wishes to remain anonymous:


I've got a column idea for you. You should visit the Barnes & Noble on Fifth Ave, one of B&N's more important stores. A full 2/3s of the first floor is packed with remainders and newspapers. That's always been the case. But recently, two tables of new books (on the north side of the store) have been replaced with two tables of not–so–new Sterling Press and Barnes & Noble books. Additionally, a section of the fiction and literature section (on the west wall) has been carved out for a very interesting display titled "Former Bestsellers" (I'm not joking). Here you can find remainder copies of James Patterson and Dean Koontz, etc. And this is one of the few B&Ns w/o a coffee bar!

The point is, B&N isn't as interested in new books anymore. They're very keen on remainders, Godiva chocolates, music CDs, etc.

      I made a visit to the B&N downtown, at Astor Place, and found essentially the same thing: after you enter and pass through a few tables of new releases, the entire first floor seems to have been denuded of books. It's mostly greeting cards, chocolates, music CDs, and a lot of other expensive and depressing nonsense. Overhead, meanwhile, really bad paintings of Hemingway, Faulkner, Woolf, Joyce, Melville and others border the high walls surrounding the café.
      At the B&N here in Hoboken, it's more of the same — you enter unto a sea of B&N's junky editions of the classics, interspersed with more cheapie productions from Sterling Books, the publishing company B&N bought a couple of months back. The Hoboken store also has a creepy "former bestsellers" table, which has replaced what was, up until a week or two ago, a table of new books.
      "The point is, B&N isn't as interested in new books anymore," indeed. Or, perhaps even more to the point, B&N isn't interested in books, period. Have they ever been?
      Remember the scenario? It was enacted across America — B&N comes to town and builds a superstore right next to the best independent bookstore around. They promise to enhance the local book culture, to spawn a local literary café society, by letting all kinds of periodicals be available in the entranceway, where people can also post notice of literary events and reading groups. The store also hosts lots of readings by local writers, and organizes reading groups. It'll be good for all the bookstores and book lovers around! they proclaim.
      Meanwhile, they sell books at a drastic discount until all the local competition has gone under. Then they stop discounting, prevent anyone from putting free periodicals in the entryway, take down the bulletin board and stop hosting readings and reading groups.
      That's what happened here in Hoboken. Even a prominent writer I know living here tells me that when she had a new book out last fall she contacted the local store and asked if she could give a reading, and was told they don't do that anymore.
      It's clear: After years of playing hardball to drive up the cut it gets off the cover price of a book — which now hovers somewhere around 50 percent, whereas it used to be 30 percent, which is one reason book prices are now so high — B&N has decided that its cut off books isn't high enough and it is now concentrating on higher–margin items such as, well, Godiva chocolates.
      Is this reason for condemnation? Well, it's capitalism, I suppose, or at least American capitalism. But what makes it all so devious and reprehensible is the pose of being good for book culture.
      No where is this more transparent that the recent announcement by B&N that it's going to launch a line of low–priced classics, a.k.a. books that are in the public domain and therefore free to reprint. (The announcement was made at a lobster and shrimp bash thrown for the press at the NYPL. One has to wonder if it gave NYPL officials even a moment's pause to rent out their wondrous facility to such an outfit.)
      And in the list of books Barnes & Noble patted itself on the back for launching with was W.E.B. Du Bois' great "The Souls of Black Folk." It is, truly, a great and important book. Which is one reason why, as I've noted in this column previously, every time I entered my local B&N for over a year — until I finally gave up — I re–shelved its lone copy of the book from the fiction section, where they insisted on putting it, over to the non–fiction section. Seems B&N thinks one of the seminal texts on civil rights by the man who invented the study of sociology — a book they are about to publish themselves — is a novel.


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.