Thoughts on B&N

In early February, B&N announced it is opening four Chicago bookstores (three of which are very close to indie bookstores). One will be taking over the former bank/Walgreens space two blocks north at North/Damen/Division. We were days away from attending the American Booksellers Association annual conference when we heard the news, so we decided to marinate, as it were, until we could converse with our bookseller and publisher brethren. Two days later, one of our lovely customers, who works in publishing, emailed James Daunt, (CEO of B&N and hedge fund guy masquerading as a champion for small business), and he replied to her. He stated that we are not a bookstore, but a cafe with a few books. Also that he would NEVER put a B&N near an indie bookstore. The whole email was infuriating on several levels, but you can judge for yourself below.

His letter below:

 

As if being called a cafe with a few books wasn't infuriating enough, he responded to a fellow Chicagoland bookstore owner who was filling him in on his mistake, with this bizarre gaslighting:

I hope that I have not been completely misled by the characterization of Volumes to me, and of how Volumes itself characterizes itself to be.
My understanding is that it is an inspiring café/bar with a vibrant literary events program.
B&N doesn’t do either and, if anything, a B&N should strengthen this side of Volumes. When you strengthen bookselling in an area, complementary booksellers all benefit. I understand completely why there is alarm on the part of Volumes but B&N isn’t going to have a literary events program, let alone when offering a glass of wine. The more people thinking of Wicker Park as a place for book buying and browsing, the more people will find their way to Volumes.
Further, my understanding is that Volumes has a limited range of books. It is, in their own words, heavily curated. It is not a general bookstore in the way that yours is. It is a place to drop into for a coffee, to meet people, and perhaps pick up a book. That will not change and, with more people in the mind for books, should see more people visit the store precisely to do this. Again, this has been my experience, time and again: more bookstores complementing one another is the benefit of all the bookstores. I will have completely misunderstood the nature of their book stock if this is not the case. This is not a general bookstore of the sort you own.
In summary, this is not a case of parking a great big B&N next to an indie general bookstore to grab its customers. I do not understand Volumes to be, in your words, a full-service bookstore. Yes, it runs a very strong literary events program, and this is not remotely threatened by B&N. Yes, it sells books, but quite differently to a range-holding, general bookstore, and I just can’t see that it will sell any less – and should, all things being equal, sell more – with B&N open.
 I am not denigrating Volumes in saying this, and I hope you see that I think highly of what I understand them to be doing. B&N doesn’t threaten them, although I understand why their instinct is to feel threatened. Over the years, I have opened a lot of bookstores in close proximity to other booksellers and never once had an issue precisely because I care deeply for the health of independents. We are not in a zero-sum game but one in which, with care, more is more. 
If I am wrong, I would welcome a call with you to understand better why. 
With kind regards (and thanks for the kind words about my own bookstore)
James

 

We love how he is mansplaining to an indie bookstore owner about whether or not a bookstore he has never been to, is, in fact a bookstore or not. One can imagine that after 8 years (March 22nd marks our 8th year) being reduced to a cafe with a few books, is belittling, but also stating we aren't a full-service bookstore?. What does he imagine a full-service bookstore to be? Is it one that facilitates the sale of any and every book in existence, whether it is on the shelf or requires ordering? Is a full-service bookstore one that is heavily curated to meet the tastes and reading habits of the neighborhood within which it resides? Do we do events? Sure, but we also operate school book fairs, supply books to businesses, book clubs, non-profits, wedding gifts for guests, baby showers, farmer’s markets, and everything in between. That is what an indie bookstore does, and calling us otherwise as a way to make himself sleep at night is absolute garbage. This isn’t a new thing, as many of the new B&N across the country are targeting areas that have strong indie bookstore support. It makes sense. The are has proven it buys books, so why not build where the book love already exists. But masquerading as reinventing the wheel of indie bookselling is eye roll vomit inducing, to say the least.

Will this all effect us? Absolutely. We cannot compete in heavily discounted books when our margins are so thin. Thinner than a multi billion dollar corporation owned and operated by hedge fund bros who not only get better margins from publishers, but akin to A-zon, sometimes use books as loss leaders (they lose money on a book with the expectation that other things will be purchased that DO have sizeable margins). 

We cannot compete on the size of sections and offerings of books because real estate is EXPENSIVE and we curate the best we can to fit the space we do have. Every week we run out of this or that, and we order a copy back in for a customer while they are in store. Imagine now that same person now says no and walks up the street to see if they have a copy. They might not, but they very much might have it. So, we just lost that sale. Sounds innocuous, right? Well, multiply that by 20 sales per week and 52 weeks. That is A BIG hit to our business, and since we can't add 20k square feet of books overnight, we will always have less stock.

Are we heavily curated? SURE. That is what an indie bookstore does. Having served this community for almost a decade, we have a pretty good idea of what the neighborhood reads and what they don't. We try new things all the time just to see if anyone takes a bite. Sometimes it is a waste of $. Sometimes we discover something new about our customers. But we think HARD about every new book that we order in, and we try to sprinkle in as many new authors, small presses, translated works, and local authors that we can, knowing they might not fly off the shelves, but we want them to be discovered all the same. Here is just one of many mentions of this policy. We also know they are strong arming well established imprints of the BIG FIVE into reducing their hardcovers (as in, they wont stock them at all so the publisher better start rethinking their entire model). 

But, BN doesn't champion debut authors the way we do, nor do they spend hours curating a list for one teacher's class library that is dealing with an influx of Ukrainian and migrant students. They don't foster relationships with all of the local authors. They also don't get involved in community affairs, spend all their money IN the neighborhood, or actually know what it means to be a business in this unique part of Chicago. 

We will add more on this later when we're not super busy planning our birthday festivities, and with the case of Rebecca, planning the entire Indie Bookstore Day Crawl for all 43 Chicagoland participating stores (if she looks extra tired this month, tell her a joke!)

We just hope in the year ahead you think about supporting us with your book purchases, your social media love, your attendance at our events, or with a hot coffee when you need one. For now, we have some rage-fuel t-shirts currently at the printer. You can reserve yours today! BE DAUNT-LESS, SUPPORT INDIE.