These Boots Were Made for Kicking…Bookstore Giants

KENSINGTON, MD — Should I feel guilty that I don’t much mind seeing Barnes & Noble hunched over in pain? In fact, there’s a large part of me that doesn’t much care if the entire C suite of B&N executives is shaking in its imperialistic boots, fretting about the respective value of their restricted stock units. They each own plenty of oceanfront real estate, or they must at least own outright a home on a golf course somewhere, and/or undoubtedly they have been dutifully advised to protect their tax-sheltered reserve funds in case of disastrous times such as these, don’t you think? Instead of rainy day funds, do economists now call these plans “financial tsunami funds,” just for kicks?

Boy, maybe I really should take a deep breath and exhale while oxygen remains unfettered by Wall Street expectations and government regulations. Or should I question my humanity and professionalism (and perhaps even patriotism) if I have such little compassion for this hobbled industry giant. After all, their hangover symptoms (queasiness, palpitations, sweats, general irritability – and that’s just the CEO’s executive assistant’s assistant) surely are the result of a semi-literate, chronically distracted, over-caffeinated, underemployed, fickle buying public (who should be collectively spanked by their third-grade librarians for not reading nearly enough), much more so than the brutal consequences of B&N’s own business mismanagement, unrestrained growth, and horrendous miscalculations of white collar expenses. Right? OK, I know I’m on thin as The Iceman Cometh ice here as I toss about unsubstantiated allegations of corporate spending abuse, but you might say B&N’s ailing condition is much like the nausea experienced by a suffering fool of a gambler who reaches into his pocket at the end of an exorbitant evening at the racetrack and knows that no matter how far he reaches down, he’s still going to be in hock up to his eyeballs, with nothing but lint to show for it.

I don’t know, Nellie. Perhaps I’m just aggravated this evening as I impatiently await EPUB files that need to comply with various e-readers including B&N’s celebrated Nook. And if I’m guilty of anything, I guess I’m guilty of that terrible train-wreck trait of Americans who seem to derive visceral pleasure from kicking corporate stallions while they’re down. Maybe I’m just bitter about an experience I had last year when I was hot on pursuit of opening a bookstore in Bethesda, Md., before sadly realizing that Barnes & Noble had a stranglehold on downtown, and the commercial real estate agent plainly told me that I should look elsewhere for a location. There was nothing legally binding about their non-compete loyalty to B&N; it just wouldn’t be looked upon (ahem) favorably for another bookstore to open in the nearby vicinity. In retrospect, I’m glad to have focused on the publishing side of the business, but the idea of a hybrid book operation (one-half traditional retail, one-half publishing house) with an espresso book machine (EBM) on site is still very much an exciting piece of my long-term vision for Atticus Books.

I suppose out of respect, sorrow, and fear, I should bow my head at the potential demise of a titanic box retailer on whose very existence I now heavily rely to sell the titles that our small press soon will release. I guess I should tremble at the thought of yet another legendary American empire taking a significant hit to its tired, staid, institutional (and, yes, ugly) midsection. If this were a prizefight, B&N would be crumpled over by a technological blow to the ribcage that revealed a not-so-surprisingly soft underbelly of a dinosaur industry whose internal organs continue to careen from the impact.

But no, I won’t cry for you, café barista, nor shed a tear for Barnes & Noble or, for that matter, a Chapter 11-reeling Borders. A merger, “Borders & Noble,” is the inevitable conclusion to this wretched old tarantella of large, chain brick & mortar bookstores sidestepping creditors to survive, and that is just fine with me, if not perfectly dandy. In fact, it can’t come soon enough. We’re in a new digital age that is in dire need of fresh, bold ideas, and small entrepreneurs are rather good at being inventive and responding to people’s ever evolving tastes for social and intellectual satisfaction. I’m a helluva lot more confident in the independent bookseller and publisher community fulfilling those needs than I am in a public company that’s run by a board of directors with all sets of eyes on one carrot and one carrot only: the share price.

Have I gone too far with this rant? Should I ask forgiveness and temper my remarks for my own professional well-being. If a B&N buyer catches whiff of this post, will they not carry my books? Mercy, mercy me. I could always just delete this rhetoric and no one would be the wiser, right?

Nah. Changes are coming, Sam Cooke, and they’re for the better, not the bigger. When Eric Andersen sang about “Thirsty Boots” in the Sixties, he was inspired by the civil rights movement. The boots I’m wearing today represent the long-term betterment of the book business. These boots aren’t meant for walking, though, they’re meant for kicking, kicking out the old and kick-starting a small business owner’s revolution. The sale and likely consolidation of Barnes & Noble are not only beginning steps but a gallop to a brighter future for information entrepreneurs.

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