The only logical conclusion one can draw from all this, of course, is that if B&N goes down the entire industry is fucked. Booksellers, publishers, authors, agents, librarians, and oh yeah, readers …
But brace yourself because it’s gong to happen, and in a big way. Not only is B&N going to get out of its brick-and-mortar business — as I say, the process is clearly already underway — but the other shoe seemed to drop last week, when the company released its holiday sales report, revealing that its plan to become a digital bookseller is in shambles, and the whole enterprise is in jeopardy.
…Perhaps the most disturbing thing about all this is the fact that, as with the demise of Borders, the demise of B&N has nothing to do with what its customers actually wanted, what’s best for mother literature or free speech, or anything other than made-up trends covering for killer capitalism. There’s still plenty of evidence that people like bookstores, for example, and even sales of hardcovers — let alone print books — are holding on. And so the lust for higher margins — whether from Godiva chocolates or ebooks — turned into fool’s gold for B&N. It’s perhaps a typical death in the Free Trade era, when companies lose all sight of their identity in the blinding light of the bottom line … but it’s the wrong death for a bookseller.
But as I say, right or wrong, for this bookseller, it’s coming. (A highly placed Big Six exec I respect to no end told me to look for the death of B&N in two to three years. That was two years ago.) Publishers are on a crash course learning how to survive without any volume booksellers, and in an environment with one retailer (oh, guess) representing as much of its business as — well, who knows? Eighty percent? More? That alone is likely to make publishers give up on printing books — there’s no sense in printing books if your main outlet isn’t going to order any until they sell them — and join the digital “revolution.”
In short, B&N’s scorched earth policy of the 1990s has ultimately left us with, well, scorched earth. If the book is going to survive it, it’s going to take some real revolutionary activity, indeed.
But the past several years have been difficult for Plan 9 — and other music retailers — as consumers have changed how they buy, turning to the Internet to purchase and download music. Revenue at record stores is expected to decline 6.6 percent this year to $1.6 billion, according to the research firm IBISWorld. That would mean sales have dropped an average 16.2 percent in the five years through the end of this year.
It’s not just digital downloads that are hurting the industry. Music buyers are increasingly turning to big-box retailers for music purchases. IBIS said in a different report that record stores, along with textile mills, video rental shops and photofinishing, were among the industries having the most difficult time in the economy.
Consumer buying habits combined with the economic downturn that began in 2007 helped undercut Plan 9. Since 2009, Plan 9 has closed stores in Williamsburg, Roanoke, Harrisonburg and Lynchburg, as well as Winston-Salem, N.C. The only remaining store, other than the one in Carytown, is in Charlottesville in the Seminole Square Shopping Center. The lease on that store expires early next year, and Bland said he hopes to renegotiate the terms.
…But as Bland’s business exits bankruptcy court protection and looks to begin anew, he’s cautiously optimistic about what’s next.
“We still believe we have the potential for a little more business than we have now,” he said. “There’s still a business, but it’s not what it used to be. By any means.”
I don’t go out much, and there aren’t many places I really enjoy for their own sake. But when I used to live in Charlottesville, Plan 9 and Barnes & Noble were my two favorite stores to visit. Every Christmas, I’d request the same things from anybody who asked: gift cards to both those stores.
I know, I know: convenience, progress, the market, adapt to survive, etc. (And unlike Nicholas Carr, I know better than to try to talk myself into wishful thinking.) Still, some things are irreplaceable no matter how foolish it sounds, and I feel old and sad tonight.