Tag Archive for bookstores

Friends of Art Bookshop at Indiana University

IMPORTANT UPDATE: On Tuesday, April 16, 2013, I received an email from Laurel Cornell, President of the Indiana University Friends of Art, stating that the IU Friends of Art Bookshop ”must close because its existence violates the contract which Indiana University has with Barnes & Noble for the sale of books.”  Cornell indicated that Friends of Art generates “a significant portion of its income” from the Bookshop.  That income, in turn, goes to support “the programs of the Indiana University School of Fine Arts and the IU Art Museum by providing over $30,000 every year in scholarships and grants,” according to the FOA webpage.

Today my local newspaper, the Bloomington Herald-Times, is reporting that the closure of the FOA Bookstore will not happen after all, and that the whole controversy was the result of a misunderstanding: “Leaders of the Friends of Art organization came away from a recent meeting believing the store violates an existing contract between IU and Barnes & Noble. That contract has Barnes & Noble College Booksellers LLC paying IU for the right to be the university’s only textbook supplier.  But an IU spokesman said Tuesday that the contract does not prohibit the art bookstore’s existence. And a Barnes & Noble representative said the company has no knowledge of the Friends of Art issue.”

The Indiana Daily Student offers a somewhat different account: “Mark Land, associate vice president of University Communications, said the situation is still being worked out.  ’We don’t know for sure what’s going to happen to the bookstore,’ Land said. ‘As of right now, no decision has been made on the fate of the store. Regardless of what ultimately happens, it won’t be a result of our contract agreement with Barnes & Noble.’”

The broader issue I addressed in my original post—the privatization of public universities—remains.  But for now, I am more hopeful today that the IU Friends of Art Bookstore will remain in operation on the Indiana University Campus.

I thank all of my readers for your support and interest in the issue.  I have taken down my original post and will provide additional updates should more details become available.  If you’d like to follow up-to-the-minute developments on your own, there’s also a “Save the Friends of Art Bookshop” Facebook group.

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Two Interviews

My blogging got interrupted as a result of my (very welcome) spring break travels, so apologies for not posting any new material last week.  But it wasn’t just travel that kept me from writing.  I’ve also been busy giving interviews about my past and current research projects, which, truth be told, were a real blast to do.  Here’s a bit about them.

The first is a two-part Q & A with the great Henry Jenkins, author of Convergence Culture (NYU Press, 2006) and Textual Poachers (Routledge, 1992), among many other notable books and articles.  The interview with Henry was a great opportunity to sit down and revisit arguments and themes from The Late Age of Print, now three years on.  It also gave me a chance to reflect a bit on what Late Age might have looked like were I writing it today, e.g., in light of Borders’ recent liquidation, Amazon.com’s forays into social media-based e-reading, and more.  Part I of the interview, which focuses mostly on the first half of Late Age, is here;  part II, which focuses largely on material from the second half of the book, is here.

I was also interview recently by the good folks at “Future Tense,” a fantastic radio program produced for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.  For those of you who may be unacquainted with the show, here’s a little information about it: “Future Tense explores the social, cultural, political and economic fault lines arising from rapid change. The weekly half-hour program/podcast takes a critical look at new technologies, new approaches and new ways of thinking. From politics to social media to urban agriculture, nothing is outside our brief.”  Great stuff, needless to say, and so I was thrilled when they approached me to talk about my recent work on algorithmic culture as part of their March 25th program, “The Algorithm.”  You can listen to the complete show here.  Mine is the first voice you’ll hear following host Antony Funnell’s introduction of the program.

Thanks for reading, listening, and commenting.  And while you’re at it,  please don’t forget to like the new Late Age of Print Facebook page.

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Soft-Core Book Porn

Most of you reading this blog probably don’t know that I’m Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Communication and Culture here at Indiana University.  What that means is that I’m knee-deep in graduate admissions files right now; what that also means is that I don’t have quite as much time for blogging as I normally would.  The good news is that I’m rapidly clearing the decks, and that I should be back to regular blogging pretty soon.

Until then, happy 2012 (belatedly), and here’s a little book soft-core book porn to tide you over — an amazing stop-motion animation video that was filmed in Toronto’s Type Bookstore.  If you’ve been reading this blog over the years, then you’ll know I’m not a huge fan of the whole “the only real books are paper books” motif (much as I do enjoy paper books).  Even so, you cannot but be impressed by the time, care, and resolve that must have gone into the production of this short.  Clearly it was a labor of love, on several levels.

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Book Rentals — A New Road to Serfdom?

Last week I blogged about the proliferation of book rental programs, particularly those focused on college students and their textbooks.  I raised questions about their promises of savings over traditional purchase and buyback, and asked whether most college students ever truly bought their textbooks, anyway.

But there’s more at stake in book renting — beyond the possibility of manipulation by advertising, or even the mutation of a business model.  There are broader social, economic, and attitudinal considerations that arise when people like you and me cease being the owners of books and instead become their lessees.

The last time book renting really caught on was during the Great Depression of the 1930s.  I’ve blogged about this before; it’s how the now-defunct Waldenbooks chain got its start.  What’s interesting to me is the context out of which book rental first emerged: a severe economic crisis — a time when the gap between rich and poor became a chasm, and disposable income all but dried up for ordinary people.  While I don’t believe the present-day renewal of interest in book renting is reducible to the economic meltdown of 2008 (and beyond), I cannot help but be struck by the similarity in the timing.

Indeed, in the United States, we’ve been hearing report after report about how the income of the wealthiest Americans — a tiny minority — has been growing, while that of the majority has been slipping.  Right now the wealthiest 20% of the population controls a whopping 84% of the nation’s wealth.  In crude terms, we’re moving in the direction of a society consisting of “haves” and the “have-nots,” or, more to the point, of people who can afford to own property (broadly construed) and those who cannot.

Now, I don’t mean to deny the benefits that come from book renting.  Realistically, most people don’t want to own every book they read, and for good reason.  Not all books are keepers; they’re also heavy and consume valuable space — the paper ones, anyway.  Beyond that, when books become too expensive for people to own outright, it’s good to have some type of affordable option (in addition to libraries) to keep people reading. Rental may be something of a boon from an environmental standpoint, finally, because you can produce fewer goods and consume fewer resources in the process.

But there’s also a major downside.

Renting books, as with rental more broadly, means you no longer get to set the terms of your relationship with these goods.  Can you underline, highlight, or annotate a book you’ve rented?  What about dog-earing important pages?  Legally speaking, can you loan a rented book to a friend?  Can you duplicate any of the pages, assuming they’re for personal use?  In a traditional ownership situation, you’re the one who provides the answers to these questions.  You’re in control.  When you lease, the answers are dictated by the property owner, or rentier, who naturally puts her or his interests ahead of yours.

Renting is, then, a type of power relationship in which the rentier holds all of the cards — or, at least, the really goods ones.  And here I’m reminded of a passage from the cultural studies scholar Raymond Williams, who, in his magnificent essay “Culture Is Ordinary” (1958), talks about how the coming of power and consumer goods to the impoverished Welsh countryside transformed people’s senses of themselves.  The ability to own consumer goods, Williams said, heightened the “personal grasp” his friends and family felt over their lives.  The presence of these items and their ability to use them however they saw fit made them less beholden to wealthy, outside authorities.

Today, the tide seems to be shifting the opposite way.  Economic conditions are such that rental is becoming a more attractive option again — and not only for books.  And with it slips that sense of personal grasp Williams talked about.  Often, signing a lease is an exercise in having to accept terms and conditions someone else has laid out for you.  More disturbingly, doing so over and over again may well reinforce an attitude of deference and resignation among we, the lessees.

With apologies to Hayek, renting books could be a pathway leading us down the road to serfdom.

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And…We’re Back!

It’s been awfully quiet around here for the past six weeks or so.  I’ve had a busy summer filled with travel, academic writing projects, and quality time with my young son.  Blogging, regretfully, ended up falling by the wayside.

I’m pleased to announce that The Late Age of Print is back after what amounted to an unannounced — and unintended — summer hiatus.  A LOT has gone in the realm of books and new media culture since the last time I wrote: Apple clamped down on third parties selling e-books through the iPad; Amazon’s ad-supported 3G Kindle debuted; Barnes & Noble continues to elbow into the e-book market with Nook; short-term e-book rentals are on the rise; J. K. Rowling’s Pottermore website went live, leaving some to wonder about the future of publishers and booksellers in an age when authors can sell e-editions of their work directly to consumers; and much, much more.

For now, though, I thought I’d leave you with a little something I happened upon during my summer vacation (I use the term loosely).  Here’s an image of the Borders bookstore at the Indianapolis Airport, which I snapped in early August — not long after the chain entered liquidation:

The store had been completely emptied out by the time I returned.  It was an almost eerie site — kind of like finding a turtle shell without a turtle inside.  Had I not been in a hurry (my little guy was in tow), I would have snapped an “after” picture to accompany this “before” shot.  Needless to say, it’s been an exciting and depressing summer for books.

Then again, isn’t it always?  More to come…soon, I promise.

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Bye-Bye Borders (in Bloomington)

Just before Christmas I blogged here about the closing of the Borders Bookstore here in my home community of Bloomington, Indiana.  Friday, January 7, 2011 was the store’s final day of operation.  I visited it for the last time on Wednesday, January 5th and snapped a few pictures.  Even for those of you who may never have set foot in this particular Borders location, you can tell that it was barely a shell of what it once was.

The montage of pictures above should give you a sense of what I mean by a “shell.”  The image appearing there on the bottom-left is, incidentally, of what used to be the children’s section, which is a far cry from how it used to look.  In fact, I have a quite vivid memory from the time I was researching The Late Age of Print. I hung out there practically all night on the evening of June 20th, 2003 in anticipation of the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Back then it was teeming with books, kids, caregivers, and energy.  Not so much now.

These two close-ups illustrate the scope of the sell-off.  It’s definitely an “everything must go” situation but more, no doubt a result of the chain’s economic woes, which extend far beyond this particular branch.  The picture on the right shows a bookshelf that’s been transformed into a display for cleaning agents — yes, cleaning agents — that are being sold off along with the store’s remaining inventory of books, DVDs, etc.  (Another display nearby held items from the café, including the mixes the baristas would use to make fancy drinks.)  Speaking of books, the vast majority of titles left were either category fiction (romances, sci-fi, etc.) or books by/about celebrities.  Note the unusually large stock of biographies of American Idol’s Sanjaya Malakar in the upper right-hand corner of the image at left.  It was, in other words, pretty much the bottom of the barrel by the time I got there.  Based on the uniformity of the inventory, I ‘d guess that most of the really desirable books had been carted off and redistributed to other Borders stores.

This final image shows a computer terminal located on what used to be the customer service counter.   Instead of facing the customer service agent, it had been turned around to face the customers, as if to greet us as we entered the store on its final days.  The display read, “Your Favorite Book Store.  Now Digital.”  I guess we know how Borders is imagining its future — assuming, of course, that it has one.

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A Blue Christmas at Borders

Three months ago I blogged here about the plight of the U.S.’s two major big-box bookstore chains, Barnes & Noble and Borders, both of which have been struggling due to the combined effect of the economic downturn and intensifying competition online.  Of the two, Borders has been the hardest hit.  Thebookseller.com reports that the chain may run into a “liquidity shortfall” early next year.  In layperson’s terms that means Borders is practically out of cash, something that doesn’t bode well for its long term survival.  The news isn’t much of a surprise, however, coming as it does on the heels of several rounds of layoffs this year and major changes in the company’s top leadership.

Well, the situation at Borders is finally hitting home — and by home I mean my home, Bloomington, Indiana.  About a month ago the company announced that it would be closing our local Borders branch just after the first of the year because it has been under-performing, relatively speaking.  Here are some (quite depressing) photos of what the outside of the store looked like last week (the “B” got burned out in a recent fire):

Everything at the store is being sold off, including not only the books but also the displays, furniture, and fixtures.  Companies only do that when they’re in grave trouble.

I’ve been patronizing this particular Borders since 2002.  Back then the place was abuzz with people, energy, and, of course, merchandise.  Shelves brimming with books.  A crowded, non-stop cafe.  Much meeting and milling about.  I loved going there to shop, write, and even just hang out in the company of books — lots of them.

But sometime around 2007 or 2008 I started noticing a change.  The shelves were becoming emptier, the cafe was quieter, and there seemed to be less and less traffic in the store.  The whole ambiance had changed, and it was about then that I started seeking out other places in which to do my book shopping and writing.

In the end, I suppose I was part of the problem.  I feel awful about the remaining employees, who are about to lose their jobs.

Not long after the Bloomington Borders opened in our Eastland Plaza shopping mall, in 1996, a nearby independent bookstore called Morgenstern’s shut down.  I don’t know much about Morgenstern’s, admittedly, since I moved to Bloomington several years after it had closed. Having said that, I find that most of the non-chain bookstores here in town do a bad job of stocking books of interest to academics, which is surprising given all the Indiana University faculty who live here.  In any case, I don’t want to attribute the store’s closing strictly to Borders (or to Barnes & Noble, for that matter, which opened a Bloomington branch later the same year), even though it seems pretty clear that Borders had something to do with Morgenstern’s demise.

With the closing of our local Borders, Bloomington is about to become something of a one-horse town — and by one-horse I mean, Barnes & Noble.  There are other bookstores here, of course, including Boxcar Books (a non-profit), Howard’s Bookstore, and a great second-hand shop called Caveat Emptor.  But the disappearance of our 25,600 square-foot Borders will be a tremendous hit locally.

It’s a sad state of affairs.

A little over a decade ago the bookstore chains seemed almost invincible.  New branches of Borders and Barnes & Noble were opening practically by the day.  Lots of indies fell by the wayside in the meantime, but at least there were large, well-stocked bookstores cropping up in their stead.

Today, it seems as if we’re headed in the opposite direction.  Physical bookstores seem poised to become less a part of the experiential landscape of daily life.  Call me a dinosaur, but I doubt that bodes well for the future of books and reading.

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A Genre Is Born

“Well folks, it’s official: literature is dead,” announces Geekologie, in a post commenting on this photo, snapped at a Barnes & Noble bookstore:

Evidently this is a real placard meant to direct shoppers to a new section of the store.  It’s capitalizing on the extraordinary success of Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series and all of those who have followed in its wake (and have come before it, for that matter.)

My first — admittedly flippant — response to the sign was, “well, isn’t all teen romance paranormal?” But then I got to reading the Geekologie post and accompanying commentary, and realized people were in fact quite concerned about what a sign like this meant for the wellbeing of books and literature. Indeed many, although not all, of those who commented agreed with the general argument of the piece: the day when “teen paranormal romance” becomes an accepted literary genre is the day when literature has ceased being, well, literature and has become something lesser.

I’m at once surprised and unsurprised by how a sign like this could provoke so much concern. (A good friend of mine, who posted the image to Facebook, called it a sign of the apocalypse.) I’m unsurprised because, as a historian of media, I know that “Teen Paranormal Romance” follows in a long line of popular genres that well-meaning people have dismissed as trash or, worse, accused of undermining the good standing of literature itself. I’m thinking here of detective novels, mysteries, sci-fi books, popular horror, and the like.

I’m surprised, however, by the narrowness of this perspective. It goes something like this: let’s tell lots of young people who love (…wait for it…) reading books that what they’re enjoying is not only drivel but also wrecking all that has ever been good about literature. Great message, eh?  Yet, it seems as if this exactly what the critics are saying when they get all in a huff about the teen paranormal romance genre.

In fixating on a particular category of books — whatever its merits may be — the critics lose sight of the bigger picture: young people are developing a passion for reading, and of paper books, no less.  This is short-term thinking at its worst.  Maybe one day these young readers will develop a love for “real” literature; maybe they won’t.  But why go out of your way to stack the deck against them?  Indeed, the best way to turn people off to something for a lifetime is to ridicule them for it in their adolescence.

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Bye Bye, Big-Box Bookstores

After more than a decade of dominance fueled by aggressive expansion, the leading big-box bookstore chains in the United States are hurting.

Borders is barely hanging on by a financial thread, with an almost $38 million loss near the end of 2009 sending the company into a tailspin. 2010 began with a round of layoffs, followed by restructuring and most recently the departure of its CFO, Mark Bierley. The cracks are beginning to show in its retail stores, too. Here in Bloomington, Indiana, where I live, the bookshelves at our local Borders are getting emptier by the month. It’s also now closed on Sunday, presumably as a way to cut operating costs.

Barnes & Noble seems to be faring better, but that’s a relative statement these days. For the better part of a year now it’s been fighting a takeover attempt led by billionaire corporate raider, Ron Burkle. But in some ways that’s not the worst of its worries. In an attempt to counter Burkle, Barnes & Noble CEO Leonard Riggio recently went looking for someone else — someone friendlier — to buy the company. He was met with this grim response by the financial press:

Before news of Barnes & Noble’s plan to explore alternatives, shares had declined about a third this year in the face of concerns that the growing digital-books market and competition from Amazon.com Inc. would squeeze out its 720 bricks-and-mortar stores while also leaving it with little market share in the digital world, where its Nook e-book reader followed in the footsteps of Amazon’s Kindle.

“It’s difficult to envision a buyer of this company given the structural issues it continues to face,” said Credit Suisse analyst Gary Balter.

Realistically, it’s probably an overstatement to say that nobody would want to buy Barnes & Noble. Someone with an interest in revamping the chain might well want to do so. Of course that would most likely mean, sayonara Barnes & Noble as we know it.

This isn’t a surprising development, and both Borders and Barnes & Noble should have seen it coming.

Remember Tower Records? Or all of those Virgin Mega-Stores? With the rise of digital music, most of the big-box music stores were forced to shut their doors. They just couldn’t compete with a business model premised on minimizing infrastructure and abandoning material goods. The same goes for Blockbuster and all of those other national video store chains, whose physical stores have been driven under by the double-whammy of Netflix and video on-demand.

E-books still have limited uptake, of course, which means that Borders and Barnes & Noble have yet to feel the digital squeeze to the degree that music and video stores have. Still, their lackluster forays into online bookselling have put both companies at a major disadvantage. Barnes & Noble used to have a fallback in the education market, with an exclusive lock on hundreds of college bookstores across the United States. Even that’s now being eroded by Amazon.com, however, which is actively courting students on its website.

There’s been some talk lately of how to retool the big-box bookstores to make them more competitive. Unfortunately, as a recent Publishers Weekly article noted, one plan would significantly involve “Taking the ‘Book’ Out of Bookstores.” In place of the physical volumes there would be an increase in what booksellers like to call “non-book product,” including journals, cards, fancy writing paper, reading lights, games, and that type of thing.

No doubt the profit margins on non-book product are attractive, and I suspect they help to create store traffic. But honestly, is this a viable long-term strategy? Does it make sense to save these bookstores by turning them into plus-sized stationery stores?

Here’s a different idea. Bowker, a leading book industry research and information firm, recently reported that women over the age of 40 comprise the largest segment of the US book buying market. Common sense would dictate that Borders and Barnes & Noble ought to pursue that aspect of the market even more actively than they do now, since that’s where the money is.

But it’s clear that now’s not the time for common sense; now’s the time for bold, unconventional thinking. What this means is that the bookstore chains ought to be courting those who aren’t your usual book buyers and working closely with publishers to develop titles that would appeal to them. That way they’d be broadening the market rather than simply reproducing it as it is.

I also wonder if now might be the right time to begin experimenting with smaller, shopping mall-based stores as well. Borders and Barnes & Noble closed most of their Waldenbooks and B. Dalton mall locations in the 1990s, in part to help finance the construction of their superstores. Nevertheless, people still love to shop at the mall, even in the internet age. The experience of being in pubic, hanging out, and poking around is something that online retailers can never hope to duplicate. And so here, again, is another untapped possibility. A suitable print-on-demand system could make mall stores even more attractive to book buyers, moreover, since then they wouldn’t have to wait for titles to be delivered from suppliers or sources online.

Maybe, in the end, it’s time to bid farewell to the big-box bookstore chains. Personally, though, I’d be sad to see them go, especially since they’ve been instrumental in making books available in places where, for the most part, they weren’t abundant — places like my hometown of Goshen, New York, for instance. I also think it’s important for printed books to remain a part of the experiential landscape of people’s everyday lives, both in the form of libraries and retail stores.

Indeed, what would it mean to live in a time when we couldn’t pluck a random volume off of a shelf and start reading, just for the sake of doing so? That’s the question we’re staring at now, not only because of the shakeout that’s been going on for the better part of 15 years in the retail sector, but also because of the cutbacks that are crippling US public libraries. But Instead of staring at this question, isn’t it about time folks started staring it down?

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“The Localized Appreciation of Books Is Gone”

Sherman Alexie
www.colbertnation.com


I love it when something that you think will be good turns out to be even better than you’d hoped.  Case in point: author Sherman Alexie’s visit to The Colbert Report last Tuesday night.  I expected Alexie to chat up his latest book, War Dances. I didn’t expect to be treated to such an intelligent commentary on the future of book culture in America.

Colbert starts out by affirming the author’s decision not to allow the digital distribution of his book.  Alexie cites concerns over piracy and privacy as his motivation for doing so.  I’ve noted here on the blog how certain e-book devices can expose book lovers to all sorts incursions into their intimate reading lives.  Alexie, for his part, ups the ante.  “I’m an Indian,” he states.  “I have plenty of reasons to be worried about the U.S. government” peering over his shoulder while he e-reads.  Colbert — ever the (alleged) enemy of literacy — chimes in with his objection to digital books. “You can’t burn a Kindle.”

Alexie then notes how the revenue structure of the music industry has changed in the digital era.  Here I believe he over-reaches somewhat, but in any case his claim is that the music is no longer what primarily makes money for top recording artists.  Now, touring and performances comprise their primary revenue stream.  He fears the same may one day hold true for book authors as well, suggesting a future in which the book-as-cultural-artifact will become incidental to paid-for author appearances.  And here Alexie echoes one of Kevin Kelley’s predictions from his 2006 bombshell published in The New York Times Magazine, “Scan This Book!“, from which the late John Updike recoiled in horror.

The rest of the interview offers something of a rejoinder to this vision for the future of the book.  In a word, it is unsustainable.  Alexie recounts how the experience of the book tour has changed for him over the last decade or so.  It used to be that he would engage all sorts of local media and indy bookstores while traipsing around the country to promote his latest work.  Today, Alexie complains, “the localized appreciation of books is gone.”  Book blogs notwithstanding, what little coverage books receive in the media today mostly occurs in the national press — in exclusive forums like The New York Times and, well, The Colbert Report.  Chain bookstores, meanwhile, now play host to the vast majority of author events.  The result, he notes, is not only a diminished conversation about books at the local level, but also the elimination of untold numbers of book-related jobs that are ancillary to, yet nonetheless sustain, the book industry proper.

I can’t say that I agree with everything Alexie had to say about the past, present, and future of books in America, but his insights were provocative enough for me to air them here.  I do agree with his final point wholeheartedly, though: “White folks should be ashamed that it’s taking an Indian to save part of their culture.”  Indeed.

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