I don’t go to Barnes & Noble much anymore. There are a few in Austin, where I now live, but they’re on the geographic margins of the city, and the main independent bookstore in town, BookPeople, is exceptional, and is much closer to where I live. There’s also a new central library in Austin. It’s a gorgeous building, with an excellent collection of books, a hip cafe on the way, a stunning rooftop garden, and even a few 3D printers scattered around, making random useless things.
With BookPeople and the library, in other words, I don’t need Barnes & Noble. I don’t imagine Austin needs it either. If the chain folds, as recent reports suggest it might, we’ll still have cafes where people can sip coffee and read stacks of expensive magazines they have no intention of buying. We’ll have places where you can browse the new books, then buy them at reasonable prices. We’ll have venues for fancy writers to read from their new works. Austin book culture and commerce will be fine.
There are, however, significant parts of the country where there are neither good independent bookstores nor excellent public libraries. In these regions, Barnes & Noble megastores (and Borders, before it closed) have long served as oases of books, coffee, and soothing interior design. They’ve also been places, I think, where weirdos, nerds, minorities, queers and other folks who desire anonymity or neutrality can congregate or find refuge.
I grew up, in Springfield, Massachusets, not too far from Westfield, where Gilbert Clifford Noble (the Noble in Barnes & Noble) grew up. The independent bookstore in Springfield, Johnson’s, was physically charming, but wasn’t really a proper bookstore. It was part toy store, part stationery store, part seller of a random assortment of books, and all around exuder of WASP chilliness, particularly toward unattended children and teenagers.
When Barnes & Noble finally got to the area, it was a godsend. Within a few years we got two megastores, each about a 15 minute drive in either direction. When I was old enough to drive, I’d go all the time. I sat and read whole series of science fiction and fantasy novels without ever buying a single one. I escaped from family and school stress at the stores. I’m pretty sure I took naps there, in those comfy chairs. No one knew me. No one cared what I was or wasn’t buying. I loved it.
There was a time when professing one’s love for Barnes & Noble was a mildly rebellious thing to do within literary and intellectual circles. For a decent stretch of years it was the killer of independent bookstores, the homogenizer of literary culture, the bully of publishers (particularly independent publishers). Now, of course, Amazon is all of those things. Barnes & Noble has become a kind of underdog, as well as an ally, apparently, of the independent bookstores and publishers it once threatened.
In his op-ed piece in The New York Times on Monday, “Save Barnes & Noble!” Dave Leonhardt ends with a man-bites-dog quote from Oren Teicher, the head of the American Booksellers Association, which represents independent bookstores.
“It’s in the interest of the book business,” Teicher says, “for Barnes & Noble not just to survive but to thrive.”
For the sake of the book business, in which I’m an occasional participant, I too hope Barnes & Noble survives. But really I hope it survives for all the readers and would be readers out there who have no other good alternative. Amazon is useful for buying books, but it’s no substitute for the rest of what Barnes & Noble gave readers like me. It doesn’t have comfy chairs, you can’t read more than a chapter for free, and its corporate indifference doesn’t provide any sanctuary.