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Farewell To Bookstores:
Why I Won’t Miss Books-A-Million

| March 30, 2014

end of bookstores books a million

Overvalued and overpriced. (c FlaglerLive)

On Wednesday the New York Times carried a front-page story about how increasing rents are forcing booksellers either to close up shop or to leave Manhattan and open stores in neighboring boroughs. The story was full of examples of how the city that calls itself the center of the literary universe is losing its bookshops. Robert Caro, the great biographer of Robert Moses and LBJ, is quoted as saying how “Sometimes I feel as if I’m working in a field that’s disappearing right under my feet.” He calls the disappearance of bookshops “a profoundly significant and depressing indication of where our culture is.”

pierre tristam column flaglerlive The next day many of us woke up to the news that Palm Coast was losing its only bookstore of note. Books-A-Million had been here just six years. In a few days, it’ll be gone, not because rents are too expensive or because it’s relocating somewhere, but because the chain has been losing money, and this store wasn’t a money-maker. It closed several stores this year. It’s a matter of time before either Books-A-Million or Barnes and Noble, the last two remaining giant bookstore chains, go out of business. The loss may not be as significant as it sounds.

I love bookstores, but I’ve come to love them less and less, precisely because of what chain bookstores have done to the trade. They’re to literature what Steak and Shake is to good food. They have merchandise, but they have no soul. And I would certainly not call either their quantity or their activities indicators of the state of our culture, as some bookshops—usually the more independent ones—can be. When’s the last time our Books-A-Million hosted a writer’s reading, an interesting lecture, a book party of any sort? The company is too interested in pushing marketing gimmicks to care much about books and writers. If it’s losing out, the chain has a lot to do with its own increasing irrelevance.

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But despite Robert Caro’s depression, bookstores in general are becoming less than indispensable. I’m a publisher’s dream customer: I have bought every single one of Caro’s books several times over, because I buy them in three formats each—hardback, digital and audio. I have never once bought them in a bookstore.

It’s a little too easy and a little too snobbish to criticize Amazon and electronic books for the demise of the traditional bookstore. I can buy a new book on Amazon for half the price or less than what I’d pay at Books-A-Million. Thanks to Amazon’s booksellers, I can buy used books for as little as a penny. Even with shipping it’s a bargain, especially when I’m buying books no local bookstore would carry because they’re not big sellers. There’s never been a book I’ve wanted that Amazon couldn’t get me immediately, however obscure.

I love the ability to ship a book off to a friend in less time than it takes to read an Emily Dickinson poem. I also love the freedom to read a good book review or get an exciting recommendation and immediately download the book to my tablet and start reading, or download the audio version and start listening. And every classic known to man is now available, free, online, and a lot of them are available in free audio recordings. None of that was possible before Amazon and Audible and Google’s universal library.

The new formats and means of delivering them I think have made books more accessible, not less, and democratized reading far more than it used to be. They’ve also done away with the horror of living in a town poorly served by bookstores. These days New Yorkers and residents of the most isolated burg in the Nebraska Sandhills, or Palm Coasters for that matter, have access to the very same quantity, variety and quality of books. Those are wonderful things that can bear the loss of a bookstore.

Of course it’s nice to browse. It’s the most pleasurable way to discover new books, broaden one’s tastes, or prove to what extent so many of us judge a book by its cover. But browsing the aisles of a chain bookstore has increasingly felt like walking in an oversized doctor’s waiting room with the same limited titles showing up again and again, with decisions about what to stock and where made in a miserable marketing cubicle hundreds or thousands of miles away regardless of the town. Gone mostly are the independent bookstores that breathed the personality of their owner whose suggestions were more valuable than your rabbi’s, and certainly more useful to the soul. In bookstores, we have been romanticizing something that, like newspapers and rotary phones, either doesn’t exist or or makes little sense anymore.

I am a little sad that Books-A-Million will be gone, because for all its shortcomings, it was good to know it was there. My family and I still managed to spend a few hundred dollars a year there on impulse buys and magazines and empty calories from the coffee shop. Better that than another abominable pet store or pawn shop or nail salon.
Palm Coast is a desert of gathering places, and Books-A-Million was one of the few. It’s also pitiful that a city of 75,000 can’t support a single bookstore, even in the age of diminishing hardbacks. But I’m not so sure we’ll miss it as much as we think. It’s not the store we’ll miss. It’s what we thought it could, or should, represent to our local culture. But in Palm Coast, we’ve been looking to fill that void with or without Books-A-Million since this bizarre little wannabe town came into existence five years after Amazon did. The search merely goes on.

Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here. A version of this piece was broadcast on WNZF.

24 Responses for “Farewell To Bookstores:
Why I Won’t Miss Books-A-Million”

  1. Jan Reeger says:

    I appreciate what you are saying but I am going to miss it. It was my gift “go to” place and I have enjoyed browsing there with a frappe in my hand.

    • The Truth says:

      While it’s not nearly as big, I would encourage you to check out the Book Rack in the Staples shopping center on Old Kings Road. A great little place to find that perfect book.

  2. Barry says:

    You say the bookstore has no soul? Will all the books and kiddie books, games and family items?
    I say that you, Pierre are without hate. However, you have an abundant has misguided HATE and an abundance of twisted opinions.

  3. Dave Sullivan says:

    Starbucks seems to keep going selling overpriced coffee and a location to
    sit and possibly have an intelligent conversation. With some kind of tablet or
    Kindle in hand I’m afraid that is as close as we will get to the old bookstore.
    We do not sell buggy whips anymore either.

  4. Gobstopped says:

    HATED taking the kids there (yep, hated taking my kids to a BOOK STORE!!!) Why? You had to run past the kiosks of toys, toys and more toys. Couldn’t leave a BOOK store without a TOY!

  5. Steve Wolfe says:

    Pierre, once again, well thought, well written, and you did your homework as always. I already feel sorry for the generation that can’t walk into a store full of brand new hardcover books. Call me old fashioned, but I feel the weight of the intellect that sits on the shelves of a big bookstore. I can walk by the magazines and feel the zeal that writers and editors have for the weekly or monthly rebirth of the product they develop, the brand they pour themselves into. It is the identity of many brilliant writers presented to anyone with the will to walk through the doors. It reminds me of the day in my childhood when outdoor fires were outlawed in my hometown, so that once we had finished running and jumping into the huge, puffy piles of color and textures and using them for all manner of joyful, giggling games, we could no longer dispense the leaves by burning them, sentencing future generations of children to autumns absent the innocent glow of fire with their reposing dads, and of course, the wonderful smells. Yeah, that was a long time ago. Some things always change.

    There is no arguing the point about the market for this bookstore. The model is decaying under the pressure of new ways, like years of mulching leaves surrendered to their microbial fate. But the model you have described here, a central-planning authority that proscribes one-size-fits-all solutions for all of their outlets, kind of sounds familiar. Let’s see, that would be like…..eureka! The Federal Government. It is unfortunate that our Federal Government is becoming more and more a failed model, losing much of what was initially conceived in brilliant inspiration to a multitude of malevolent mummies in suits and ties. The product of the Federal Government was supposed to be the upholding of liberty by sworn defenders of our Constitution. The model has morphed into a leviathan that is run by unelected defenders of their own closed universe. The product bears less and less resemblance to what we grew up with, and I fear will look nothing like that to my grandchildren. And all in the name of “progress.”

    It isn’t bad enough that we will crush our grandchildren with the debt required to cover our own expectations of government. On top of that, we will deliver to them a product that will leave them with fewer options, and less means to correct it. A real business would wither and die if it were run the way our government is run, even the government here in Palm Coast. Look at the Postal Service. What company can run multi-billion dollar deficits every quarter for years on end? Take the IRS. If customer satisfaction or equitable treatment and non-discrimination were requirements, they would be replaced by a better market model. But we can’t even vote these folks out. We are STUCK with them. If they run deficits, no problem: they just print more money. If we complain, they produce official rationalizations as cover. If that fails, they just lock the doors and turn off the lights and go home at 5. See ya next Monday. Oh…wrong about the lights… Then they pay themselves bonuses for…something…

    Whereas the generations that preceded us always endeavored to bequeath a better nation to succeeding generations, I fear that we will be the first to deny our successors that. It has nothing to do with closing mega-bookstores. It has everything to do with the failed model of government. We are supposed to be in charge, remember? It was designed to be government by consent of the governed. But to them, we are less than customers, on which real business relies. They have no fear of us.This beast is turning us all into subjects. And that’s a bad market model, too.

    • Ron says:

      Sorry Steve Wolfe, but you completely lost me when you turned the closing of a bookstore into a metaphor for perceived problems with the Federal government. Up until paragraph #2, I agreed with your commentary.

      Not everything should be turned into a Tea Party rally cry.

      • Steve Wolfe says:

        Thanks for reading it! I thought I got a little long winded there. And yeah, I admit it was a stretch to toss that political stuff into that story, but that’s just how convoluted my mind gets.

  6. Brian says:

    Whether or not these were contributors to its demise, BAM was increasingly replacing book space with toy space and seemed to be a spot parents chose to dump their kids without protest from the store itself. And God help you if you wanted to buy some books without being upsold a long list of clubs, magazine subscriptions, etc. It would be nice to have a physical book store in Palm Coast, but that was not the store, nor the location for it.

  7. Brad says:

    After having spent 7 years managing for B&N up until just a few years ago, I couldn’t agree more with everything you have said. These companies are not failing because of technology evolutions or lack or readers. They have lost their way, are mismanaged, and are a prime example of what happens when companies become about only serving the investor instead of the customer.

  8. RHWeir says:

    Actually, I could care less about BAM the store. I care about the lost jobs. When the mayor compared BAM to a slide rule and said it was outmoded, I thought, how callous, it’s not the store, it’s the jobs. 9.4% unemployment rate, no new viable jobs on the horizon, it will be hard or impossible to replace those jobs. Do I care about BAM as a place to hang out and browse? No, I do not. Do I care about those individuals and families who will be impacted by lost jobs? Yes, I do. We need to start acting and thinking as a community and not as individuals here. It’s not about the store, it’s about the people who worked there and the jobs.

  9. Brittany says:

    Actually, decreasing sales were not the reason that this store closed. So maybe we should rethink whether the correct research was done in regards to this article.

    Recently the plaza was bought out, and another store has upped their rent offer by $1K a month. With enough comments back on the survey on the bottom of your receipts at Books a Million, they will look into finding a new building in Palm Coast. They are being kicked out of their plaza for more money, which seems to be an increasing trend in Palm Coast. It is hard enough to get businesses to move in with our extremely difficult city planners.

    I actually find the digital age of books quite disturbing. Everything is digital, and I feel it is a sad representation of where our society is heading. There is nothing quite like the smell or the feel of a good book. That feeling can not be replaced with the cold, digital, and hard Nook or Kindle.

  10. Dalgarnif says:

    It’s a shame to lose our only large bookstore but everything you said is quite true. My wife and I owned a bookstore many years ago but book selling is completely changing its selling model first with the advent of major chains and then with online sellers. I enjoy browsing in a bookstore but the ability to access virtually any book ever printed overnight and at a reasonable price eliminates the need for local booksellers and is a great model for selling and buying. This is happening all across the retail sales lines, unfortunately eliminating local retailers, news organizations, magazines, etc. giving us the loss of that local touch and support but broadening the access to information and products. Change happens and if we didn’t want it we wouldn’t change things.

  11. Skeptical says:

    Well when I heard the book store was going out of business I stopped in and bought some books as I periodically do at BAM. The nice lady that rang up my sale specifically told me as well as the woman before me that Town center landlord raised the rent and it was no longer affordable for them to stay. With such notice and no ability to find a space big enough that would accomodate the book store in Palm Coast they chose to close down. She also said that in the past Town Center was negotiating with Big Lots. That deal didn’t come to fruition. However the sales clerk believes that for a company like Big Lots they would accept the price of what the new rent will be. So with that said I’m going to sit back and see who rents out that location, will it be Big Lots, BJ’s or another wholesale type store. Palm Coast was originally supposed to be a retirement community where retired folk came to spend their money. It was not planned that to accomodate families and working people who need jobs. I don’t think we will see industry come to our town so that people can make a living and support their families. Home rental prices have gone up too. It used to be affordable to live here but not anymore. We need new town leaders who are open minded. Leaders without personal agendas. If you bring companies to Palm Coast that provide employment, the kind that pays more than minimum wage and is not retail or restaurants then Palm Coast will have tax revenue to rely on instead of red light camera revenue. Thats another sore subject. Where are the safety reports proving they help prevent accidents. Its a form of surveillance on Palm Coast citizens.

    • Steve Wolfe says:

      Ding ding ding ding ding! Winner winner chicken dinner!

    • Nancy N. says:

      Sorry, you can blame the local city leadership for A LOT of things, but not the increase in rental prices. Thanks to the economic crash and the tightening of the credit markets that followed, many fewer people can now afford to own homes or get a mortgage to buy one. Thus, they are forced to rent, increasing the demand for rental housing significantly. Increased demand = Increased prices. It’s the flip side of the same reason that prices to purchase in the housing market have fallen – decreased demand. It’s a nationwide problem, not limited to Palm Coast.

  12. Racenfan says:

    We did the same thing, went this weekend to pick up some deals. Three groups of us that arrived together but checked out seperately were told that they were a low volume store and that someone else had made the landloard/owner a better offer and BAM was asked to move out. Funny that we got a similar story but not the same, when I left I said the same things, I will wait and see if someone else comes along.

  13. Enlightened says:

    Today I did something I haven’t done in a long time. I went to our library. Guess what? The books are free. After that, I went to BAM l picked up two books and contemplated buying them until I seen the price. Even at 20 percent off it was still expensive. I think I will stick to free books on the internet or Amazon. I will miss browsing the isles of BAM, but not sorry to see them go.

  14. Steve says:

    A belated comment. Without discussing the merits of BAM, it is indeed sad to see it closing. There is something reassuring about a bookstore–about the continuity of ideas, represented by books spanning centuries–as well as its role as a gathering place of sorts. But I have to confess to being part of the problem. I can’t count the number of times while driving that I’ve heard an author being interviewed on the radio, and as soon as I arrive home, logging on to Amazon and buying the book with one-click. Amazon benefits from that impulse to buy that might pass or be forgotten in another day or even an hour. Let’s hope that the Barnes & Noble on US1 in St. Augustine sticks around, and let me put in a plug for the used book store in the Staples shopping plaza–a good place to pick up that book from years ago that you never got around to reading.

  15. Charles Ericksen Jr says:

    I will miss the location also, but find a purchase through the internet, quite a bit less costly, than at the store, inspite of their claim that the yearly book club does save you $$..not really…
    I do recall going to 2 writer readings and lectures at this location…. the best was author Steve Berry, and his wife, who live in St. Augustine..His specialty was/is historical thrillers…
    This author had 50+ rejections , before he got an acceptance..
    I was impressed, how he and his wife went to the foreign location for months, prior to writing a word..

  16. Michelle says:

    @Brittany… Totally agree. Discussing with the Clerk at checkout, I had the same story about the rent increase. I have purchased three days in a row & three days in a row I have completed the survey. When it asks ‘how we can improve?’ I write ‘DO NOT CLOSE THE STORE’….. Also call the Customer Service: 800-201-3550. If enough of us let them know that we need this variety in our city, then they could be looking at the soon-to-be-remodeled Palm Harbor for a new location!

  17. Seminole Pride says:

    My Kindle and Amazon suit me just as well.

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