The last few times I’ve gone into Barnes & Noble stores, I’ve come away depressed. The shelves are sparse more often than not, and the lack of customers means the store is overcome with an eerie silence. The only thing more depressing than an empty bookstore is an empty chain bookstore, with its weirdly atonal corporate signage and full bins of untouched fidget spinners.
On Saturday morning, during a short visit to Bellevue, I stopped in the downtown Bellevue Barnes & Noble for the first time. I was expecting the same depressing atmosphere I’ve found in all the other Barnes & Nobles lately. Instead, I happened upon what might be the best Barnes & Noble in the nation. The building, with its high wooden beams and large stage back in the children’s section, is enormous, but the shelves were well-stocked.
Better still, the staff was on their A-game. I saw booksellers greeting a few customers by name. The shelves were alphabetized and sections were generally cared for. Usually when a bookstore hits a period of decline, the first sacrifice is the alphabet; low-morale employees don’t have time to fix their sections, which makes books impossible to find, which drives customers away. I saw none of that here. It felt like a real bookstore, which is more than I can say for every other Barnes & Noble I've been in over the last year.
Back in the late 1990s, independent booksellers hated chain bookstores with a passion that sometimes scared friends and family. Now, though, the bookselling business has changed. I’ve talked with more than a few booksellers who hope Barnes & Noble manages to figure out a way to succeed, in part because if the chain fails many cities in the United States will not have a single bookstore. Those failing Barnes & Noble stores I visited could learn a lot from the downtown Bellevue store: good customer service and well-tended sections go a long way.
But not even a half-mile away, in the Bellevue Square Mall, a large mural promises that an Amazon Books store is opening in the autumn. The mural displays snippets of Amazon’s cheerful data-forward information, including a list of “Bellevue’s Most-Wished-For Fiction of All Time.” My eyes went straight to number six on the list: Atlas Shrugged. At that moment, it occurred to me how much Ayn Rand would love the America of 2017. So many people forced to fend for themselves, so many public figures fighting on behalf of corporate interest, such little empathy and understanding. She’d probably have to pinch herself to make sure she wasn’t dreaming.
We’ve reached a point when Barnes & Noble, once the mighty Goliath that crushed so many foes, is now the David. I am rooting for them to survive the onslaught of Amazon Books. If they do survive, it will be on the strength of their staff, not through any corporate ingenuity or clever discounting scheme. In the end, it always has to do with people.