Thank you to Daily Show writer and erstwhile culture blogger Daniel Radosh for wading through all the laments for the supposedly imminent demise of bookseller Barnes & Noble and pointing out an obvious truth about the corporate behemoth:
Articles lamenting Amazon's murder of *wonderful* Barnes & Noble superstores remind me of stories 15 yrs ago w/B&N as evil killer of indies.— Daniel Radosh (@danielradosh) July 26, 2013
Radosh goes on to cite several articles that depict the Barnes & Noble of the 1990s as a destroyer of the independent bookseller. That suggests that those who bemoan the chain's inability to compete with Amazon may have short memories, as they seem to have forgotten that Barnes & Noble was, until very recently, widely despised for its homogenizing force.
First, Radosh links to a hauntingly prescient 1993 report in The New York Times that suggests that independent booksellers would suffer from the encroachment of Barnes & Noble on their landscape:
Skeptics predict that such stores will force hundreds of independent bookstores out of business, giving Americans fewer choices and leaving publishers at the mercy of a few very large buyers.
Of course, nobody had any idea that Barnes & Noble would itself be dominated by Amazon in the new millennium.
The following year, however, a spunky essay in The Times branded Barnes & Noble "the Macy's of bookstores, a perfectly magnificent store, but one whose centralized purchasing techniques and mid-range commercial tastes could, in a less intellectually vibrant town, standardize the choices available to the collective mind."
In addition, Radosh cites a 1995 Times article about the closure of Books & Things in the New York suburbs. The owner of the store said, "We can't compete head to head with stores like Barnes & Noble," depicting it as an enemy of true booklovers.
Three years later, Nora Ephron's film You've Got Mail had the romance between the characters of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan play out to the backdrop of a battle between an independent bookstore and its monolithic competitor, which comes out victorious.
Yes, that's the very same Barnes & Noble that the book industry is, 18 years later, desperately trying to save. Somehow, the publishing world calculus has deemed Barnes & Noble an evil lesser than Amazon. And there is, perhaps, some valence to that argument. But mostly, it just shows how myopic we can be about the business we love so much.
As is so often the case, the cleverest take on the ironic saga of Barnes & Noble comes courtesy of The Onion, where a recent article reported that Fox & Company — the triumphant, megalithic bookstore from You've Got Mail — has closed in the face of "Amazon and Apple absorbing the lion’s share of the market." The article also noted, as Radosh does, that the fictional chain, like the real one that is its obvious basis, had "a cold approach to revenue." This is a satire of the truest kind.
Photos: Barnes & Noble by AP; Kindle by AP (Toby Talbot); You've Got Mail courtesy of Warner Bros.