A truly depressing visit to a Barnes & Noble store

In the 1998 movie “You’ve got mail”, Meg Ryan, the owner of a small, neighborly bookstore, feared the consequences of a new colossal and impersonal big box bookstore opened nearby by Tom Hanks.

Maybe she should have waited a decade.

Then she’d have seen a seen a seismic shift, with big-box book stores threatened on every front. That threat is vividly on display at the Barnes & Noble store at Bridgeport Village in Tigard, which seems to be giving up on the old-fashioned printed word.

On a recent visit to the store, I was first confronted with a brightly lit space featuring not newly-released print books, but the Nook eReader, released in the U.S. in the distant past of November 2009.

After passing through the Nook display, I anticipated racks of books that were there when the store was a Borders superstore. Instead, I encountered a large area that felt like I was back at Woolworth’s, a five-and-dime chain that flourished in the 1900s before succumbing to competition in 1997.

Spread around the space were displays for “greeting cards,” “stylish stationary and groovy gifts,” “quirky and cool gifts,” candles & scents,” and “lunch bags”. No print books in sight.

Surely there would be books around the corner, I thought. Nope. That space is occupied by the Barnes & Noble Café.  How about beyond that? No books there either. That’s occupied by racks of magazines, from Psychology Today, US and Vanity Fair to Comic Heroes, Buddhadharma and Clean Eating.

Rows of print books were only in the middle of the first floor, adjacent to an escalator with a “Temporarily out of order” sign. Prescient perhaps.

I took the elevator up to the second floor expecting an expansive area crammed with books. Again there were rows of print books in the middle of the floor, but also a large space featuring “Building,” “Learning” and “Arts & Crafts”. Filling the space were LEGO kits, kid’s toys, Sparkle Tattoos, Feather Fashions, a Perfume Science Kit and venerable games like Twister, Sorry and Clue.

All of this doesn’t bode well for Barnes & Noble’s once mighty print book and magazine retail stores.

Those stores, which have been generating most of the company’s profits, have been dealing with a slow decline for years. Revenue from retail stores in the third quarter ending Jan. 25, 2014, for example, fell 6 percent to $1.4 billion. Revenue in stores open at least one year, a key retail metric, fell 4.9 percent.

All this despite the bankruptcy of Barnes & Noble’s principal competitor, Borders, in 2011.

This is consistent with the numbers on printed book sales at retail stores across the country. Government statistics show that overall bookstore sales have been treading water since 2003, with printed book sales through retailers taking a big dip in 2011, 2012 and 2013.  Meanwhile, eBook sellers, which offer a wider selection and lower prices, continue to grow.  Even Barnes & Noble’s former CEO William Lynch told a Bloomberg reporter he read his books on a Nook. “I don’t really read physical books that much anymore,” he said.

The market for print magazines, the other big print section of the Barnes & Noble store, isn’t booming either. Single copy sales of print magazines dropped 11, 9, 8, 9 and  8 percent annually during 2008 – 2012.

The economic picture for print magazines is gloomy, too. Total ad pages for the 211 magazines tracked by the Publishers Information Bureau in 2012 fell 8.2 %, to 150,699 for the year – a substantially sharper drop than the 3.1% drop seen in 2011.

 Maybe it won’t be long before Barnes & Noble has to close the book on its retail print book and magazine stores.

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