Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Bricks, Mortar, and Crap

Stopped by the local Barnes & Noble yesterday. By the time I left, I was having serious reservations about ever going to one again. The whole experience was an exercise in mind-numbing frustration.

Is my taste in reading SO specific that the local big chain brick and mortar book store has absolutely NOTHING I want?

I’m fully aware that I’m not going to find something by, say, Dan J. Marlowe or Peter Rabe on the shelves there. For that matter, I know I’m not going to stumble across anything even by modern writers I dig and who are outside the mainstream, like Anthony Neil Smith or Charlie Williams. That’s too much to ask of a populist business like B&N. I don’t like it, but I’ve reconciled myself to that fact.

But as I wandered through the store, ever more desperate to find JUST ONE THING that interested me as a reader, I began to realize something basic. Simply, the big brick and mortar chain book stores don’t give a shit about real readers. Not really.

This was my experiment with them. First: let’s look for some Joe Lansdale. Any luck? Well, they had a paperback copy of BAD CHILI. That’s it. Nothing else from Champion Joe. So I shifted gears—let’s see if Kim Newman’s latest is in stock. The answer? Nada. No Kim Newman, not even his classic ANNO DRACULA.

I decided to edge my way slowly toward mainstream. How about Ken Bruen? He’s sorta/kinda big, right? And he has a newish book out. Not at B&N, he doesn’t. Not a single book from Mr. Bruen.

By this time I was getting discouraged but had made up my mind that I was NOT leaving this store empty handed. How about Jason Starr? Any luck? No. Scott Phillips? No. Daniel Woodrell? No, no, no.

Finally I had an idea. Stephen King. What book store on earth is not LOADED with books from Stephen King? I’d been wanting to pick up a copy of his collection JUST AFTER SUNSET for some time, so I meandered over to the K’s.

Well, I’ll give them this: they had every single book Stephen King ever wrote, right there. Almost three shelves full. Every single one, that is, except JUST AFTER SUNSET.

I stood there staring at the rows of King tomes for a few minutes, thinking the book I was looking for might just appear if I concentrated hard enough. Didn’t happen. On a whim, I made my way over to the C’s, thinking Albert Camus. I already own a copy of THE STRANGER, but what the hell. Maybe I’d get a spare copy to lend out or something.

No such luck. Nothing by Albert Camus on the shelves. NOTHING. Albert Camus, man!

What I DID find at B&N, though, was a metric ton of space devoted to the handful of books written by Stephanie Meyer. Lots of books by James Patterson and his personal crew of ghost writers. Big displays filled with THE HUNGER GAME and its associates. Books with glaring portraits of television and pop music celebs on the covers.

And oh, yeah, a place where you could buy many different varieties of over-priced coffee drinks and scones.

Are my reading tastes THAT specific that I can’t find anything that interests me? Or have the brick and mortar chain stores let real readers down?

When Borders went toes-up, I read a lot of stuff on line from folks mourning the great loss, but my feeling at the time was, well, fuck ‘em. They did it to themselves. If I felt any sadness about losing Borders, I felt it LONG before they closed their doors, years ago, when they made the business decision of catering to non-readers and flavor-of-the-month cultural fads. Many folks blamed the advent of on-line stores like Amazon for the decline of the brick and mortars, but that’s a cop-out.

You know why Amazon is doing so well? Because they have a terrific selection. They have what you WANT.

So Borders? I gave up on them a long time ago.

And now I’m giving up on Barnes & Noble.

I still love the thrill of finding a book I want on a book shelf in an actual store, but the only time I get that thrill anymore is at used and rare shops, where they still care about books and the people who read them. Between those little independent stores and Amazon, I manage to do pretty well.

Oh, and by the way, I did manage to snag a magazine before I left Barnes & Noble yesterday. So it wasn’t at total loss. But the clerk told me they wouldn’t be carrying it much longer. Why?

“It doesn’t move. We need to make more room for the magazines people want to read.”


  1. I said it before and I'll say it again here, I hate the marketing major who works in books. That guy loves his paycheck more than good writing. I hate to say it, but online retail is the future. For customers, for writers. Everybody.

    Books can't compete with fucking People's Magazine.

  2. I know this is in Ann Arbor, a bit of a hike, but...

    I support my local (Watchung Booksellers) because they carry stuff I like.
    In fact, I'm cancelling all my pre-orders from Amazon and ordering from them.

  3. all too true in the UK too. I got Like Love by Ed McBain second hand for £1 in Scarborough of all places. Never seen it in a chain store and it's an 87th Precinct Novel for god's sake

  4. One word, "Volume".
    The Monster stores only want to bring in their metric tons of popular books and push them out the doors just as fast as they bring them in. Books on the shelves are only taking up space. And I'm sure any executive would be happy to tell you "they're a book store not a library". Do you suppose if 100 people walked right behind you and asked for the same book it would make a lick of difference? Sadly, no.
    As for the little guy, If he wanted to order ten or so to put on his shelves, They'd tell him on the other end that they couldn't possibly send him less than twice the population of the city he's set up business in.
    At least these have been my experiences in the past. You I'm sure have a much better insight as to the inner workings.
    You could always try your patience, and luck, that a copy will one day find it's way to your local used book store, and you'll be able to find it, under mountains of Stephanie Meyer once the people who ate up that stuff one day wake up and realize what crap it is and unload it.
    I fear my friend, the way of the future is going to be the internet. That is until we no longer even have books. It will all be on tablets.
    Remember "Fahrenheit 451" where they were burning all the books? Think of the time and resources saved bu just hitting "Delete".

  5. Same over here with Waterstones. But I don't really blame them. I know they try with the "real" stuff now and then, but people just ain't buying. The tastes of the book buying public are what's turned to shit, and the shops just cater for it. I bet you didn't find any Erskine Caldwell either, right? One of the greatest American writers of the 20th century, a massive seller in his day and his stuff is still fresh (in a completely fucked up way)... but no one gives a shit now.

  6. My experience exactly. That's why I only go to used book stores. There, you have a chance of finding something wonderful.

  7. I Like your article and could not agree more. Here is another failure of B&N from and article I wrote a while ago.

  8. Yet another book nerd (and that's no slam - I'm one too) who doesn't understand the economics of running a store. You know why there's no Landsdale on the shelf? Because it costs money to pay workers to stock it, to sell it to you, to constantly change the set-ups so the store looks a little different every time you go, who make the coffee, etc. All things Amazon doesn't have to pay for. If Landsdale sold enough books to support the stores, they'd be full of them. It's the basic free-market at work, really.

    And, just so you know, I agree with your general laments, but I don't blame Amazon or BN. I blame the crappy taste of American readers.

  9. I am shocked and appalled at some of the names you couldn't find. A bookstore without Camus has no right to call itself a bookstore. And surely the likes of Ken Bruen sell plenty of copies for a big box store?

  10. Chris: Camus is in every bookstore in Montreal, but I always thought it's because he's a French writer. You would be surprised how obscure some of the American greats are here. If I wouldn't have picked up Fitzgerald myself, nobody would have called me out on never reading it.

  11. Great post, Heath. But I'm shocked, SHOCKED to learn they had nothing from Anthony Neil Smith! Next thing you know, you're going to say they didn't have any of my books.

    But of course, we know that can't be true.

  12. Ben: Fitzgerald has more reputation than actual reads in the UK, I think. But generally reputation counts for a lot. Hence you'll have no problem finding Bukowski, but Erskine Caldwell will have to wait for a re-evaluation and revival from the literary establishment.

    But the truth is that - thanks to the boy wizard, Bridget Jones and others - I think people are reading more than ever before in the UK and Ireland. Big publishers and bookstores have decided to focus on surefire huge sales because they are trying to compete with supermarkets. But most people, even people who read shit, want more choice and range. They can't get it at big stores so they go online, where Amazon has plenty of choice.

    If big bookstores focused on range instead of coffee and volume, I don't think they would be half as worried as they currently are by the advent of the Kindle.

  13. If that's the B & N in Royal Oak, that's the worse damn store I've ever seen. I have never yet bought a book from them despite having a writing group that met there monthly for five years. Hate them. You can find a lot more of the books you want at Second Story Books on Nine Mile between Gratiot and Kelly. Not a perfect story but they have a long, long row of mysteries, a long, long row of suspense (never did get how they define it), similar horror and westerns, and a lot of quality paperbacks.