Let me just say up front that I hate the movie You’ve Got Mail. I love Nora Ephron, and Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are a great couple, but, as someone who loves books, and especially bookstores, I despise You’ve Got Mail. It’s not just that it’s a plodding, predictable film that, in spite of all the talent involved, has all the charm of a wet sack of month-old bananas. When it was released Melville House Books–full disclosure: I wrote some articles from a librarian’s perspective for them–had a profile of a real life independent bookstore owner who was driven out of business when a Barnes & Noble moved into her neighborhood. Then, in a twist very much like You’ve Got Mail, she got a job with B&N. And in a twist very much unlike the movie it was an awful experience. The higher-ups had no interest in the community and pushed store policies that left no room for creativity. The people selling books might as well have been slinging frozen burgers–all of which was as predictable as You’ve Got Mail‘s saccharine ending.
Now, almost a quarter of a century later, I’m surprised to learn that Barnes & Noble bookstores–specifically the brick & mortar stores–are not only still around but that they’re experiencing a bit of a renaissance thanks to their new chief executive, James Daunt. Daunt has a long history of running independent bookstores and, well, turning them into successful chains, so he seems like an obvious choice to take over one of the last big book retailers. He also knows selling books isn’t like selling anything else. He says, “These big retailer bookstores have failed to hang on to their customers because they weren’t friendly, they didn’t have the right books and they weren’t engaged.” He even welcomes people who just come in to look around, treating the bookstore as a special place: “There’s no expectation that you are buying anything. It’s a happy place – you come in, you browse.” And he adds, “Reading – and coming to bookstores – is a habit, not a fad.”
It sounds like he’s read the criticism of Barnes & Noble and actually thought about it. His strategy is to let each store be independent–encouraging them to be part of the local community.
In some places that might work. Will it work in Nashville, though? This city already has several independent bookstores. For new releases you can go to Parnassus, The Bookshop, or Fairytales Bookstore. If you want used books you can go to McKay’s, which is a megastore that devotes most of its space to books but also has movies, musical instruments, videogames, toys…
Or for just books there’s Rhino Books which, like any good bookstore, has its own cat, and whoever’s behind the counter can guide you through the sections. I went in there once and asked if they had anything by S.J. Perelman. The guy frowned and said, “I think so,” then went off on a rant about how it was a shame no one reads him or Thurber or Dorothy Parker anymore. Imagine getting that at a big chain store. It’s also a few doors down from an amazing independent coffee shop.
What I’m getting at is that the new Barnes & Noble’s sales strategy sounds great for places that don’t have any other options but, given the choice, I’ll stick with bookstores that really are independent. And also You’ve Got Mail is one of the worst movies ever.