Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2017 Issue

Dinner, Beer and Wine at a Bookstore? Welcome to Barnes & Noble's Latest Survival Plan

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A new Barnes & Noble restaurant (from their website).

Would you like plancha-cooked salmon with whole grain tabbouleh salad & basil dressing with your books? And some Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve Champagne from Reims, France, seems like an appropriate selection from the wine list for salmon. Barnes & Noble has been chasing internet behemoth Amazon for quite awhile now without much success. Now, Amazon has started opening bookstores to complement their online business. Unlike Barnes & Noble, they are smaller, basic stores, offering just books and electronic accompaniments. They don't offer reading rooms, comfortable sofas, pastry and coffee as B&N has for years. Struggling to differentiate itself in a positive way, B&N is testing out going even more upscale, with $23 salmon and $68 per bottle champagne offered in its bookstores. As Michelle Obama used to say, when they go low, we go high.

 

As they would announce during the Cold War era when interrupting our radio and TV programs with "CONELRAD" warnings of an imminent nuclear attack, "this is just a test." Four locations have been selected: Eastchester, New York (suburbs of the city), Edina, Minnesota (Minneapolis), Folsom, California (think Folsom Prison Blues, or nicer, Sacramento), and Loudoun County, Virginia (Washington). All but the Loudoun County location opened recently, with the latter coming soon.

 

The conversion isn't easy and not all B&N stores are suitable for it. The dining areas are twice the size of the spaces currently used for coffee and pastries. The store has to have enough room for it to fit. Presumably, a closed kitchen is needed rather than the open bar style serving area with which I am familiar. Some book shoppers might not appreciate the smoke or smell of sizzling salmon. The idea here is to lure in more customers, not drive them away.

 

Dinner is not the only meal served at B&N. There are sandwiches appropriate for lunch, and breakfast is served until noon. You can get a breakfast burrito for $11. That's a bit pricier than the $3.49 it will cost you for a breakfast burrito at Hardee's, but I'm going to bet it's a fair amount better. The surroundings are certainly classier, and full table service is provided. You don't have to go up to the cashier and wait for someone to call out your name when it's ready. They will bring it to you.

 

Perhaps most notable about the new B&N restaurants is that they serve alcoholic beverages. Along with the wine list, you can purchase beer. There's no Bud here, let alone Pabst. They don't even carry Sam Adams or Heineken. They are all from local breweries, with clever names like Surly Brewery, Brau Brothers, and Dogfish Head (if it were Salmon Head I'd be concerned they were making it from their left over fish parts).

 

In the 1990's, Barnes & Noble experienced great success. It's large, comfortable stores, that allowed patrons to slowly look through the selections, read some, socialize with friends, have coffee and snacks, in some locations even listen to live music, proved to be a winning combination. It was the place for book lovers to go. Remember Waldenbooks, or B. Dalton? The smaller, traditional stores were not a match for the atmosphere of a B&N.

 

However, by the turn of the century, internet giant Amazon was coming at them quickly. Lower prices were their main calling card, along with the convenience of buying at home. And, some who still liked the atmosphere of a B&N, would go there to peruse the new books, and then go home and buy them from Amazon for less. It has taken its toll over the years. Borders, with a similar model, is gone, and many have questioned the long-term viability of B&N's model. For a while, it looked like B&N would challenge Amazon in one major area of technology – e-readers. Their Nook at first made a great run at Amazon's Kindle, but it ended up becoming a money loser, something B&N could ill afford.

 

So, will this rekindle Barnes & Noble's good fortunes? It strikes me as a long shot. It almost seems as if they are doubling down on yesterday's technology. I always liked shopping malls. You could spend a relaxed afternoon or evening browsing through all kinds of stores and enjoy a meal at the food court. They drove Main Street out of business. The malls had security guards chase away young people, who they felt were in the way of shoppers with bigger wallets. I don't know if they still do this, but I doubt there's much need for the service. Young people are staying away on their own. Malls are dying. The idea of the mall as a place to shop, socialize, and have a meal has become passé. The appeal of a B&N strikes me as similar to that of a mall. I may still like them, but not many younger people do. Doubling down on a mall-type experience may not be the way to reach the younger generation. Not that I have a better plan for B&N, or that I wish them anything but well, but it just doesn't feel right. I hope I'm wrong.

 

Oh, that plancha-cooked salmon... what is it? A plancha is like a cast iron skillet, only flat and square instead of round. You place it on a barbecue so you can sear the food while still getting that barbecue flavor. Sounds good.

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