One, Two, Three, Four, We Don’t Want This Superstore: On the predictable yet somehow unforeseen demise of the big chain book store
Once upon a time when listening to a pop culture podcast I heard the host suggest that there ought to be a five-year delay period before handing out Academy Awards. His idea was designed to address the fact that before a few years have elapsed, it’s impossible to know which films, roles and performances are timeless classics vs. which are merely interesting in the moment. I tend to agree – with the proper amount of perspective certain Oscar mistakes would easily have been avoided. Forrest Gump, which won over viewers and critics with its quirky charm when it was released in 1994, never would have beaten out far superior movies Pulp Fiction and Shawshank Redemption for Best Picture had the voting been delayed a few years. Dances with Wolves benefitted from being the first movie of its kind (that kind being “interminable”) when it won Best Picture in 1990; just a decade and many copycat films later, the idea that it beat out Goodfellas was already laughable. Finally, a mistake that seemed obvious as it was being made in 1998 – Shakespeare in Love winning Best Picture over Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan – looks worse with each passing year. (Disagree? Shakespeare in Love has been ranked the worst Best Picture winner of all since 1990.)
I wonder whether five years is sufficient though. A look back on 1998 shows that it was a notable year for movies that would age better than anyone would have predicted, and a few that were horribly dated right out of the can. Two movies that were largely ignored by the Academy are today probably the two most popular films of that year – The Big Lebowski and American History X. Both of these movies now have devoted followers and have since been properly recognized as well written and expertly acted. When I think of what makes a “Best Picture,” it is a film that would get me to say to a friend, “You’ve never seen [Movie X]? You absolutely have to see it.” I could say that – I have said that – about both Lebowski and American History X. Post-1998, no one has ever said that about Shakespeare in Love.
A movie that is not timeless, but was actually way ahead of its time upon its release in 1998, is The Truman Show. Jim Carrey stars as an insurance salesman who discovers that his entire life is actually a reality TV show. Of course, the phrase “reality TV” isn’t used even once in the movie … because it didn’t exist yet. What was a fantasy exaggerated for the purpose of social commentary in 1998 became, within five years, a plausible reality (though still abhorrent) and now, 15 years later, we’re at the point where it’s surprising that there hasn’t been a real-life Truman Show.
The polar opposite of that movie is one that was behind the times from the moment it hit theaters, and now serves as a punch line despite once being a box office darling. You’ve Got Mail – the romantic comedy starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan that isn’t Sleepless in Seattle – is as antiquated as the dial-up modems and Windows 95 operating systems that co-star in the film. With a movie so obviously and so far out of touch so quickly, it’s easy to focus on the technological aspects of the film that wouldn’t make sense to a viewer in 2013. For starters, ask anyone under the age of 25 what the phrase “You’ve Got Mail” is a reference to and unless they’re well-versed on Internet history or popular culture, they’ll have no idea. In fact, the very idea of logging onto a computer that wasn’t automatically connected to the Internet (dial-up modems!) through closed-ended software that only gave you access to a limited amount of what could be accessed online (AOL!) only to be told that yes, you actually have an email, hooray! is surely well beyond the comprehension of any millennial. Of course you would have an email since the last time you logged on to this painfully cumbersome technology – wouldn’t you have hundreds? Alas, You’ve Got Mail makes online social interaction seem like the equivalent of a man and woman meeting on a walk to the moon. (Want to kill 10 minutes? Visit this site – a recreation of the original website for the movie – and remember what the Internet was back in 1998.) Then there is Instant Messaging – which in some forms still exists. (Gchat anyone?) However, in this movie Instant Messaging is given the social importance that text messaging has today. Is it possible to imagine a world where you can only text message while sitting in front of a desktop computer and only to others who are similarly “logged on”? I can’t, and I lived through it.
None of this is particularly interesting to me. Even if you adore You’ve Got Mail (apparently there are still some of you out there) it’s pretty easy to take shots at how technologically dated it is on the surface. It’s a little more incisive to point out how the anonymous online flirtation that goes on between Hanks and Ryan’s characters solely through email and IM could never occur today in a world of Facebook, Instagram, and Google image searches. In just a few easy steps Ryan would go from Hanks’ Facebook page to his LinkedIn profile and find out – the horror – that Hanks was the man responsible putting her tiny little independent children’s bookstore (the delightfully named “Shop Around the Corner “) out of business. But that’s only a little more interesting.
What I find most amusing about this failed take on our networked society is the completely misguided business conflict that creates the critical tension in the movie. Ryan’s character is concerned that the arrival of the Fox Books Superstore will put her little store out of business. The people of the neighborhood agree, chanting in protest, “One, two, three, four. We don’t want this superstore.” In the movies things move faster than in life, and so sales at the Shop Around the Corner take an immediate nosedive as soon as Fox Books opens and shortly thereafter Ryan closes up shop. In real life, the Shop Around the Corner would have seen sales slow down a little bit but would have been stuck in a multi-year lease that would have kept the store there through the tougher times.
As we reached the mid-2000s, what would likely have happened next was foreshadowed by what happened in the music retail industry. A few years before stores like Fox’s were supposedly squeezing out the little guys in the book game, people were raising the same concerns about the proliferation of music mega-stores like Tower Records and Virgin. How could a small independent music retailer like Bleecker Bob’s or Kim’s Video & Music compete with state of the art stores that held thousands upon thousands of titles, CD listening stations and often ancillary benefits like Ticketmaster outlets or in-store performances? Fast forward to the 21st century though and no matter how hard you look you won’t find a Tower or a Virgin (or a Sam Goody or a HMV) anywhere. Bleecker Bob’s may have closed its doors, but it was pushed out by a frozen yogurt chain, not a music superstore. Meanwhile, take a look at the long list of record store reviews on this site and you can see that predictions of their death were greatly exaggerated. Right across the street from the old Tower Records in the East Village – which closed its doors for good in 2006 – Other Music not only survives but thrives. The superstores were supposed to kill off the little guy, but as it turned out the Internet was the looming giant that was stronger than both, and when the dust settled only Apple, Amazon and (some of) the local independent record stores survived.
Why did this happen? In the late 1990s file sharing networks like Napster made it easy to digitally copy, store and transport (and arguably illegally download) music. The record industry fought to shut down the Napsters of the world, but they couldn’t hold back progress forever, with music sales eventually becoming dominated by digital files primarily through Apple’s iTunes and then, to a lesser extent, Amazon’s digital music service. The benefits offered by the mega-stores over the indies were trumped by the digital store. Where Tower could carry thousands more CDs than Other Music, iTunes could carry a limitless number of titles. Tower could use its power to sell music more cheaply than other stores (though it generally didn’t), but nothing was cheaper than buying digitally. As for extras, listening stations were nice, but not nearly as nice as previewing bits of any song you could think of online. Even the Ticketmaster outlets became obsolete with the rise of e-ticketing. And while iTunes was busy eliminating all of the advantages that the superstores held for less than a decade, the beauty and charm of the independent stores remained, and actually seemed even more important in this cold digital age. People still went to Bleecker Bob’s for nostalgic reasons, or to Other Music to ask knowledgeable salespeople about particular albums, or frankly to any small record store just to feel like you were amongst like-minded people. No one got the warm and fuzzies from Tower.
The retail book industry may have lagged chronologically behind music retail, but the pattern is exactly the same. Fox’s (or in the real world Barnes & Noble and Borders) came in and threatened to push the local competition out of business through massive stores, thousands of titles, discounts, couches, and in-store cafes. For a few years it was easy to be lured in by all of the advantages the chain stores had to offer. Slowly though, people became less and less likely to buy their books at a brick-and-mortar store and ordered them online instead, mostly through Amazon but also through Barnes & Noble’s own website. The damage was felt, but it wasn’t an immediate death knell to the superstore. After all, you couldn’t flip through a book online, you didn’t get the convenience of having the book in your hand right away, and while Amazon’s prices were better, they were offset in part by shipping costs. When you think about it, Amazon was for books no better than CDNow – the first popular online music retailer– was for music.
The game-changer – like it was for music – was digitization. With the launch of the Kindle, Amazon was digging the graves for the brick-and-mortar book stores. Readers now benefited from all the same advantages that music listeners did. Entire books could be downloaded instantly, even to a phone. Chapter previews and other excerpts were made available online. Like with the iPod, the Kindle made it possible to travel with many different titles without adding weight or bulk, crucial to travelers and commuters. And with the elimination of shipping and printing costs, the savings of buying an e-book as compared to a new copy of a physical book were substantial.
Border’s, which was in business for over 40 years, closed its last remaining stores in 2011. Barnes & Noble staved off extinction by introducing its own e-reader, the Nook, which it could demonstrate and sell in stores (something that Amazon could not). It may be too little too late though for the book Goliath turned David. It has been closing stores for a few years now, and in early 2013 announced that it planned to close up to one-third of its remaining stores over the next decade. Its online store continues to lose money. And in an ironic twist of fate that would normally only be seen in, well, a movie, the Barnes & Noble store depicted in You’ve Got Mail – opened in 1995 – was closed in 2011.
Like their music industry counterparts, the independent book stores have held their ground. After all, as Meg Ryan makes abundantly clear, there is nothing more charming than a quaint little book store. I am as guilty as anyone in propping up the indies at the expense of the superstores – in the past six months I have bought books from WORD, powerHouse Books and Book Court (as well as several used book stores) without hesitation, but while in Barnes & Noble I’ve scanned barcodes and saved books to my Amazon wish list rather than purchase them on the spot. I’ve gone to author events in each of those stores, as well as at the Strand, but it’s been a few years since I’ve gone to one at a B&N. When I needed to fill the “book recommended by my local bookseller” square for the Reading Bingo Challenge, I asked a bookseller at Book Court for a recommendation; I don’t think I’d ever have done that at a B&N. About the only thing that I can’t do better at either Amazon or a local indie is order a cup of coffee, but “we proudly brew Starbucks” is hardly enough to keep the chain store in business.
It’s been 15 years since the farce that is You’ve Got Mail was everyone’s go-to date movie. We live in a world where certain movies can yield multiple sequels each a decade after the one that preceded it, without missing a beat. That could never happen with You’ve Got Mail. Dial-up could be replaced with WiFi, AOL with Facebook and Hanks and Ryan could spend all of their free time Skyping at one another, but one aspect of the film that cannot be overcome is what’s happened to Fox Books. Last month, the (fictional) struggling retail giant filed for bankruptcy. The moral of the story of You’ve Got Mail may have been something about love in the age of networked technology, but the moral of the story of Fox Books is that while independent stores never go out of style, big corporate behemoths are born to die. Support your local big chain superstore – buy a book at Barnes & Noble today.
 Ed Norton was nominated for Best Actor for his role in American History X, but it otherwise received no nominations. The Big Lebowski received no nominations.