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How Barnes & Noble Became the ‘Good Guys’

Once a mighty villain, the bookstore chain looks different in the age of Amazon

I’m going to guess that, whatever your principles, you threw some business Amazon’s way this holiday season. I understand. There’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, so why not order gifts from the company with the horrific warehouse conditions that ensure your package arrives a day or two sooner? Hahaha. Yeah, we’re all part of one big problem. It’s cute.

But I want to take you back, for a moment, to the 1990s. The decade wasn’t that good, obviously, though it was a time when a book was a book, not a screen. Say what you will about the fog of nostalgia — pages are better. You can dog-ear them, write on them and flip them with relish. Reading a real book has an expressive aspect that clicking through a device just doesn’t. Unfortunately, it was the rise of the e-book that allowed Amazon to crush its bookseller competitors. It now claims 83 percent of the market share for these files, which, I’m sorry, you don’t even physically possess, and which one of Bezos’ goons could maybe delete for the lols.

Happily, I’ve yet to crumble and buy a Kindle. More strangely, I visit Barnes & Noble a few times a month.

No, really. There’s a Barnes & Noble near the MEL office, and I like to wander there. I shop at local indies too — shoutout to Skylight Books — but Barnes & Noble has a lot of space, and a pleasant normie vibe. It’s also empty, at least in the middle of a weekday. You get a sense of what America is reading, or what publishers want it to read, in print. This chain is the last big holdout in Amazon’s takeover, and it’s something of a humbled lion. You find yourself feeling a little sad for Barnes & Noble, which steamrolled neighborhood bookstores only to be overthrown by a nimble upstart they once mocked. In 1996, owner Len Riggio told Jeff Bezos that their forthcoming website would crush the brand-new Amazon if the companies didn’t collaborate. Bezos called that bet. In recent years, B&N have been ruthlessly closing and gutting their stores, with long-term employees who fostered community kicked to the curb. This year, a hedge found bought the brand for $476 million, probably aiming to revamp “with a business model more like that of a local bookstore.” Which probably means more brutal cuts.

Amazon has brick-and-mortar locations now, also, and they are a nightmare. I visited one with a frankly dystopian number of books and plenty of Hulk action figures for sale. Barnes & Noble did a lot wrong, and a lot of their best people have been paying the price, but I have the urge to protect what’s left of it now from the algorithmic freeze of what comes next. I’ve started to quietly root for them, and to like the booksellers I meet.

One guy ordered me a novel they didn’t have, and I enjoyed coming back for it later that week. When I impulsively bought a true crime book, the seller ringing me up said it was a favorite of hers, gripping and scary. It’s in these exchanges that I remember what a nice escape Barnes & Noble had always been for me, especially as a nerd growing up in the suburbs. True, they (and Borders) had made it impossible for a local store to succeed nearby, but these places did still try to project something of the public square. It was comforting. It was somewhere you could exist and explore without spending money.

Like I said, capitalism sucks. I don’t want to think of a hedge fund-controlled franchise that has fired so many loyal workers as an “underdog.” Nevertheless, capitalism forces weird alliances, and if I can withhold money from Bezos’ empire by snagging the odd paperback from the ol’ big box, I’ll do it. I don’t imagine this arrangement is satisfying to any party, and, well, that’s capitalism again: Nobody is genuinely happy.

Although sometimes, I’m taking a walk, and I decide to pop into Barnes & Noble, and for a while I move in the soft light and hush of the shelves, picking out random books, looking at how they begin. And that is a kind of happiness. Not to sound corny or whatever. Everyone deserves an actual bookstore where they live, and right now, for a significant number, that bookstore is one founded in 1886. If B&N have to become the thing they destroyed in order to survive, then so be it. I’m gonna keep browsing.