Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
Barnes & Noble recently announced it will close nearly 300 bookstores over the coming decade. D.C.’s Georgetown outpost closed last year and the Union Station store is shuttering at the end of this month. While some cheer the downsizing of a perceived corporate giant, others are lamenting the loss of a gathering place in the community to discover new books and meet with friends. We consider the past and uncertain future of chain bookstores.
- Mark Athitakis book critic; author
Independent Vs. Chain Bookstores In D.C.
Last month, Barnes & Noble announced plans to shutter up to a third of its 689 brick-and-mortar bookstores over the next decade. In D.C., the retail group is already whittling its operations — the Georgetown location closed its doors last year and the Union Station store is slated to shut down later this week. But readers have many options when it comes to buying books, as the number of independently-owned booksellers in the district vastly outnumbers the number of chain stores. University bookstores (not mapped here) only add to the shopping choices.
Find a bookstore in the map below. Red signifies a chain bookstore, blue signifies an independent one. What’s your favorite bookstore? Let us know in the comments.
View Independent vs. Chain Bookstores in D.C. in a larger map
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, author Karen Russell on her latest, a collection of short stories. But first, coming soon to a mall near you, well, maybe an empty space where the bookstore used to be. Barnes & Noble recently announced it will close nearly 300 retail locations in the coming decade, a move that comes less than two years after Borders' outlet shuttered completely.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd while some may cheer the downsizing of a corporate giant, others are lamenting the loss of a third place where they could browse books and meet with friends and worry over the closure of big-box stores in places where independent shops are not an option. Here to help us ponder the past and future of chained bookstores is Mark Athitakis. He's a writer, editor, critic and blogger who serves on the National Books Critics Circle Board of Directors. He's written book reviews for The Washington Post, New York Times and other publications. Mark, good to see you again.
MR. MARK ATHITAKISGood afternoon. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDIYou can join the conversation at 800-433-8850. Where do you shop for books? Do you frequent brick-and-mortar shops, or do you buy online? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Mark, before we get to the state of the big bookstore today, tell us where 16-year-old Mark went for books and what he found there?
ATHITAKISOh, sure. Well, I think it helps to start off by saying that my parents were working-class Greek immigrants. My father worked at General Motors' locomotive plant. My mother managed a warehouse. So the option of going to the nice downtown Chicago bookstore just really wasn't on the table. So my bookstore was the mall bookstore. It was the one that was across the street from the high school that I went to. And, you know, I think people might look down a little bit on Walden Books, but that was the place where I actually discovered a lot of books that I wound up loving.
NNAMDISixteen-year-old Mark discovered "Lipstick Traces" by Greil Marcus.
ATHITAKISYeah. And which is kind of an usual book to discover in a Walden Books, thinking back on it now because it was published by University Press, and it's a bit of an oddball book about the connections between Dadaism and British punk rock in the late '70s. But it was a remarkable book, and it was one of those books that, you know, kind of just blew my hair back and inspired me to become a critic.
NNAMDIHit the young Mark like a thunderbolt. When these big stores first started popping up in the country, there was an outcry as a lot of smaller shops shut down. Now, some are lamenting the loss as the big guys close down some outlets. How has our collective cultural opinion, if you will, of these stores shifted and evolved over the last few decades?
ATHITAKISWell, I think, you know, it may be a function kind of when you grew up. I mean, for me, when the mall bookstore was the only one that I had or the one that was closest at hand to me, you know, that was an important place for me. Of course, I think people who are maybe a little bit older might recognize the time when those bookstores came in and pushed out some of the smaller independents.
ATHITAKISYou know, I think now in the time that we're living in, I think there's kind of frustration to go all over. People who just love bookstores are seeing, you know, with Borders' decline and Barnes & Noble seen on shaky ground, being a little bit frightened for the fate of the bookstore. Independents are holding steady after about two decades' worth of decline, but, you know, there's certainly cause for concern.
NNAMDIAnd so in your cultural world, Walden Books and big bookstores are what you knew. You were not even significantly aware of the fact that there was this dispute over them replacing the smaller bookstores.
ATHITAKISWell, exactly. And I knew that, you know, they were the, quote and unquote, "nicer bookstores" and perhaps more bookstores. But I think in some ways this is kind of a class and background thing. You know, I just wasn't going to be necessarily inclined to go those places. My comfort zone, you know, when I was growing up was the mall bookstore.
NNAMDIWe're talking about big-box chain bookstores now that many of them will be closing and inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Did you spend a lot of time browsing in mall bookstores as a kid or teen? What did you find there that has stayed with you? 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question or make a comment there.
NNAMDIMark, last year, the Georgetown Barnes & Noble closed, and the Union Station store's set to shutter later this week. Both of them serve as good example of stores that served as a third place, if you will, in their community. Can you explain what that is, and how these stores served that function?
ATHITAKISWell, a third place is, you know, the common term that sociologists use to refer to a place that isn't your workplace and isn't your home. So it's a place that you were going to find people in your community to engage with. Barbershops are a great example of that. Coffee shops are a great example of that. And one thing that I wonder about is whether the rise of Starbucks in the past couple of decades really kind of cut into the role of the bookstore.
ATHITAKISBecause if you really just wanted a place to kind of sit back, relax and, you know, read a book, then you were in competition between the bookstores and the Starbucks. So -- but I think for a good long time, especially in a lot of suburban outposts, I think that going to the bookstore was an opportunity for people to be in one place for an extended period of time not necessarily actively purchasing but browsing and meeting people in their community.
NNAMDIAnd if you happen to have a partner in life who spends a great deal of time shopping and you happen to accompany that partner, the bookstore in the mall was the place where you could wait for a long time and enjoy your wait because you would be reading stuff while you waited.
ATHITAKISAbsolutely. And I think, for me, and maybe this strikes other people as well, when I find myself in a different city, one place that I wind up looking for is where is the bookstore, where is the place where I can spend a little bit of time to kill time. And I think one thing I've noticed quite palpably in the past, you know, four or five years as I've traveled is that it's harder and harder to actually find a place like that to pop into and spend a few minutes.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. If you go to our website, kojoshow.org, you'll see a map of the independent and chain stores here in Washington, D.C.. That's at our website, kojoshow.org, where you can also ask a question of Mark or make a comment. Ron Charles, of The Washington Post, recently wrote about bookstore showrooming when people browse in brick-and-mortar stores but then buy online. What kind of effect of that -- is that phenomenon having on the industry?
ATHITAKISWell, I think it's having two effects. On the one hand, it's obviously making things very difficult for the retailers because no bookstore wants to be just a place where people come in, make a list of things that they want to buy online and then disappear. But I think the other thing -- and you see this happening especially with independent booksellers -- is that they've taken it as really a message to not make their bookstores look like showrooms or not turn them into just showrooms, which means that it become much more curatorial, it become much more focused on your community.
ATHITAKISYou focus on finding the kinds of books that you know the people who are walking in the door are going to be interested in, and you spend more time engaging with those customers. I think hand-selling becomes a much more important aspect of the book-selling experience.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Don your headphones, Mark, because Kelsey in Washington, D.C., wants to talk about precisely what you've just been talking about. Kelsey, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KELSEYHi. I'm originally from the suburbs of Pittsburgh, so I really identified from what you're saying a little bit about growing up around these big-box retailers, and I really appreciated them. As a millennial, my sister, I know she goes -- she's exactly one of those people that will go to a bookstore, find a book and then go and order it online. I'm curious kind of what this effect is doing, I guess, more around holiday shopping because that's the only time I know that she buys books because everyone can get something at one place, like on Amazon.com.
NNAMDIYou're interested in what effect that's been having on the big-box stores?
NNAMDIWell, that's why Mark is here.
ATHITAKISYeah. I think it's hard to say I mean obviously I think, you know, what Barnes & Noble reported in its last earnings report was that things were holding fairly steady. But, you know, I know that the independent booksellers seem to have had a pretty good Christmas season. The American Booksellers Association said that sales have been going up.
ATHITAKISSo, clearly, a lot of the efforts that they've been making to reach out more directly with consumers and inspire them to actually buy the books when they're in the bookstore seems to be working. Whether that's a generational thing -- and maybe Millennials still haven't kind of caught wind of that -- is kind of an open question, but it seems to be holding steady on that end.
NNAMDIWell, one of the things you should now, Kelsey, is that Barnes & Noble told The Wall Street Journal that in the next decade, the chain will close about 20 outlets a year, leaving them with 450 to 500 stores. At their height in 2008, the chain operated 726 stores.
NNAMDIBut now, in a report in The New York Times today, the chairman of Barnes & Noble plans to bid for the retail business of the bookstore chain he started 40 years ago as the company struggles with the changing competitive landscape, his proposal being made by Leonard Riggio would not include the e-book division, Nook Media, but what do you think it can do for the brick-and-mortar stores?
ATHITAKISWell, I think this is complicated. This made a lot of sense last month when Barnes & Noble said it was going to thin back its stores because even if you didn't like it, it seemed like, well, they're going to free up capital, to maybe concentrate more on the digital end of things, and that was going to be their profit center for, you know, the next decade.
ATHITAKISBut now, they're announcing that the Nook sales are not going to be what they are, and it seems like the instinct here is to, well, let's split them in two and see if they can survive as individual businesses. The line is that the Barnes & Noble, brick-and-mortar stores are still profitable. But is that still going to be the case 10 years down the line?
NNAMDIOn to Steve in Washington, D.C. Steve, your turn.
STEVEYeah. I hope that the demise of the big-box retail bookstores leads to a re-emergence of the mom-and-pop bookstores because I grew up on those, and you find kind of offbeat titles in those places. And I really miss them.
NNAMDIWell, we're pretty fortunate in this region, Mark, to still have some smaller, independent bookstores, but not everyone is so lucky. How do socioeconomic factors come into play here?
ATHITAKISWell, I mean, you know, obviously, I think if you have even a relatively short memory of bookstores in D.C., you've seen a lot of stores that have disappeared in the past five or six years. You know, Books, that chain disappeared. Olsson's disappeared, Vertigo Books, all places that, you know, had a very strong role in the community, no longer part of the local landscape.
ATHITAKISI think what it forces the bookstores that are still here to do is to become much, much more focus on the community, think of one example of a bookstore that opened fairly recently, Busboys and Poets in Hyattsville, you know, they opened a small bookstore in their space and which is specifically focused on social justice issues. And I think that's sort of kind of micro mom-and-pop, as you know, something that's focused on a particular genre of books within a particular community, might be a path forward for bookstores to succeed.
NNAMDISteve, thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDIOn to Paul in Alexandria, Va. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAULHi. I wanted to comment about two of the remarks that have been made. One is that the Georgetown Barnes & Noble definitely qualified as a third place, but I don't think the Union Station store ever did just because it was small and not -- no extra space for chairs or anything like that. I mean, you could say that Union Station itself is a third place.
PAULBut the Barnes & Noble store itself I don't think ever was. The second thing is I've always felt that the arguments that small independent bookstores were bigger than the -- were better than the big-box when this was just a wildly irrational argument. I mean, the argument was that, yes, maybe Borders and Barnes & Noble has 10 times the selection, but it's all trash.
PAULAnd the independent bookstores have the really good stuff. And I never found that to be the case. I always thought that especially Borders but also Barnes & Noble had and has fantastic stuff that in a lot of cases you'd never be able to find in a small independent place. So I've always been a big supporter of big-box places.
NNAMDIMark Athitakis, I guess is a living witness from 16 years old.
NNAMDIYou could find the better books there also. Paul, thank you very much for your call. Here is Monica in Alexandria, Va., who wants to talk a little bit more about the business. Monica, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MONICAThank you very much for taking my call. This is a subject dear to my heart. I run the rare books division of a local regional auctions house here in this area, and I was wondering if your guest would care to comment on the effect that this closing of the bookstores are always having on the higher-end of the market?
ATHITAKISHard for me without knowing I mean because this is the only antiquarian side of things is not something that I'm closely familiar with. But I think, you know, we still see some stalwarts that do focus on that. I think Second Story Books in Dupont Circle seems to a prime example of a place that still is -- seems to be running strong, working on that side of things. I don't think the interest in bricks -- brick-and-mortar retailer is going to disappear. But I think, you know, it's going to have to be much more focused in the kind of products that they sell for people.
NNAMDIMonica, I suspect that you have been noticing something yourself. What have you been observing?
MONICAWell, that we don't -- we get in. We're a full-service auction company. So we do get in all kinds of materials, more of accumulations and collections, if you will. And we cannot sell things like new fiction with all the competition from the e-readers and things like that. So we are finding that the very good stuff is holding its own. But everything else has been pretty much coming down in cost.
NNAMDIWhich brings me back to the point that you were making earlier, Mark, about narrowing the focus like Busboys & Poets is doing in Hyattsville. You go for a particular type of genre or particular type of interest. In that way, you get people out.
ATHITAKISWell, I think it's a hard market to go in if you're just going to be selling what everybody else is going to be selling. You have to make a decision about what is your niche, what is the community that you're in. I mean, I think this is really, you know, it's -- I think it's bad news in some ways. But I think it also lights a fire, you know, under a lot of retailers to make a strong decision about what are you going to sell.
NNAMDIMonica, thank you for your call. Here is Bob in Fairfax, Va. Bob, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
BOBKojo, I'm an author. And to me, Barnes & Noble, which is the only really large bookstore left, is simply a retail outlet that borrows my product and returns it six months or a year later. Bookstores are the only retail outlets that return retail products they have not sold. And that is what happens to my books, and it's what happens to publishers and authors generally. That model was created in the Depression, and it's way out of date.
NNAMDIWhat do you think a more efficient and, I guess, profitable model might be, Bob?
BOBI would like to see a bookstore do the same thing where the books such as my World War II history "Mission to Tokyo," the same thing that a large chain hardware store does with a screwdriver. If you're a manufacturer of screwdriver and you get a place in a retail outlet, the retailer cannot come back to you, the manufacturer, later and say, oh, I'm sorry, Bob. We didn't sell your screwdriver. Now, we're going to return it to you. To me, Barnes & Noble and other large bookstores are simply places that borrow my books.
NNAMDIInteresting take. I don't know whether or not, Mark Athitakis, that business model is likely to change anytime soon.
ATHITAKISYeah, I think it's been an ongoing discussion. I don't think it's really -- I haven't heard anything about it moving anywhere. But, you know, I think this reveals another wrinkle about this business, which is that increasingly, there's more and more pressure on the authors to really be doing the promotion themselves.
ATHITAKISThere might have been once upon a time where just putting a book in a Barnes & Noble at an end cap when you walked in would be enough to help sell the book. But, you know, publicity departments don't necessarily do as much as they used to and authors are really, really pressured more to do much more of the selling.
NNAMDIMark Athitakis is a writer, editor, critter -- critic and blogger who serves on the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors. He's written book reviews for The Washington Post, The New York Times and other publications. Mark, good to see you again. Thank you for joining us.
ATHITAKISThank you for having me.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break. When we come back, award-winning author Karen Russell on her latest. It's a collection of short stories. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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