I was reading one of Kris Rusch’s columns over at The Business Rusch
the other day, the topic
being shelf space disappearing in book stores. At that reminded me of an unpleasant experience I had the other day in Wal-Mart, one that is now repeated every time I walk into the store (which isn’t nearly as often as it was a few weeks ago). If you haven’t read Kris’s column, please go read it now. I’ll wait.
There, that didn’t take too long, did it? Ms. Rusch brings up some very disturbing points, and while some of them are negative, others are mixed. For what it’s worth, here’s my take on things, including why I’m not going to be shopping at Wal-Mart as much in the future.
For starters, I understand the point Kris makes about Barnes and Noble trying to drive customers online. It helps their bottom line for two reasons. First, in the short term, it provides an incentive for Nook purchases. Eventually that market will saturate, either because everyone will have one and the technology will mature to the point that repeatedly releasing an updated version will no longer be cost effective, or more likely that a new technology will come along and make the Nook obsolete. The second reason, and the one that bothers me, is that it will allow B&N to either close more stores to get out of expensive leases or devote more shelf space to non-book items such as toys, games, stationary, and greeting cards. Along with more floor space to sell the Nook.
Borders, even before it declared bankruptcy, was undergoing this at a disturbing rate. When I started graduate school at UT Dallas back in the early 90s, the Borders at the intersection of Royal and Preston was one of the two go-to bookstores in the Dallas area, the other being the Taylor’s near Prestonwood Mall, although living at what was then the northern edge of the suburban sprawl, i.e, in the other direction, I tended to frequent the Bookstop in Plano near Collin Creek Mall rather than drive an extra hour. All three had excellent selections of science fiction and fantasy, mystery, and scientific and technical books, and all were willing to order titles not in stock (although Taylor’s charged to do so).
Then Taylor’s closed, Barnes and Noble bought the Bookstop chain and closed the one in Plano to open a B&N on the opposite side of the mall, and suddenly Borders was the only good place to get almost anything in print.
That didn’t last long. I’ve only been in that Borders a few times in the last five years, and usually it was to find a magazine I couldn’t get at the big B&N on Northwest Highway. I don’t know if that particular store is still open. I’ve bought very few books there in the last half decade or so. Each time I went in, it seemed the fantastic literature had been moved to a different area and had less shelf space. Along with all the other books. And there more titles turned face out, which is one of the points Ms. Rusch made in her essay. Books facing out take up more space, meaning the shelves hold fewer books. The last time I was there, it wasn’t worth the gas to drive over.
So how does Wal-Mart figure into this? It’s simple. They’re committing the same type of stupidity as the major chains, but they don’t have the excuse of an ereader to fall back on. I live a little over two blocks from K-Mart, four or five blocks from Target, and about a mile and a half from the nearest Wal-Mart (there are four in town). I’ve been going to this Wal-Mart for one reason. They
have had a section of their book department devoted to science fiction, meaning that the section was labeled as such. Now the selection was at least 50% fantasy, but I’m not complaining. I read considerable amounts of both. I’ve seen Wal-Marts that devote some shelf space to a few sf/f titles before, but this is the only one with entire section devoted to the stuff. A number of them have sections for westerns, which I’m not knocking, except I don’t think westerns sell as well as sf & f. Maybe Wallyworld is different, because the westerns section in my local Wal-Mart is still intact. And none of the employees, excuse me, associates, I talked to could tell me who made the decision to remove the fantasy and science fiction.
What did they put in its place? They moved the romance section over and put “Books” where the romance previously was. They’re still putting the display together (they’re anything but quick here), but it appears to be mostly children’s books and cook books. All face out. I guess they think fewer titles with more visibility will sell more books.
So now I have one less venue I can walk into, pick up any one of several books, and browse through them. As far as I’m concerned, electronic browsing isn’t worth the time it takes. I like to flip through the book. I’ve bought plenty of books at that Wal-Mart, some of which I’ve reviewed at Adventures Fantastic. And I like a good selection, which, given its size, this one had. But it’s no longer worth the time and gas to drive over and put up with the crowd for the books they have now.
My local B&N has a decent selection, meaning I can find something that interests me. But I can’t find everything, including much of the stuff I want. Kris Rusch wrote about not being able to find her latest science fiction novel, City of Ruins, in a B&N but being told it was in the warehouse and she could order it. The local one here didn’t stock it either. Nor did they stock Howard Andrew Jones’ The Desert of Souls or Scott Oden’s The Lion of Cairo. They had a novel by Paul Finch which I wanted to review, only they sold it before I could buy it and didn’t order a replacement copy. It was a zombie novel; the replacement would have sold. I’m going to have to order all of these books. And that’s a hassle. I ordered the Oden, but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. The other three will probably get ordered sometime before the end of the summer. I want to review and discuss all four of them, but I’ll probably review other things I have at hand first. It’s easier and faster that way.
I could go on. There’s a locally based chain with a number of stores in Texas called Hastings I could write an entire post about, but this is negative enough as it is. The more I write, the grumpier and more depressed I’m getting. If you’re like me and like to spending time in book stores just browsing to see what treasures you can find, I don’t hold out a lot of hope of being able to do that much longer.
This essay has been cross-posted at Futures Past and Present.