Barnes & Noble as “the last bookstore chain standing”

Here is a look at the dwindling fortunes of Barnes & Noble:

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Mitchell Klipper, chief executive of Barnes & Noble’s retail group, said that, over the next decade, the chain will reduce its outlets by about twenty a year to reach a figure of about 450-to-500 consumer stores, down from a peak of 726 in 2008. A separate chain of 674 college bookstores (which thrive on tchotchkes and their exclusive franchises) is not part of that calculation. Even with so many fewer consumer stores, Klipper said, “It’s a good business model. You have to adjust your overhead and get smart with smart systems. Is it what it used to be when you were opening 80 stores a year and dropping stores everywhere? Probably not. It’s different. But every business evolves.” Klipper disputes the notion that bookstores will be unable to hold their own in the digital era, despite the chain’s need to downsize where rents or locations are hurting the prospect of acceptable profitability. Only a handful of the stores–fewer than twenty–are actually losing money, he told the Wall Street Journal’s Jeffrey Trachtenberg. But the company’s revenues have been significantly impacted by its commitment to build the Nook franchise.

While holding on to ownership of nearly 80 percent of its Nook division, a $300 million investment in Nook from Microsoft last fall, followed by an $89.5 million commitment from Pearson, which sees value in the growing electronic textbook market, are signs that Barnes & Noble can forge a way to secure enough of the digital business to offset the problems it faces in traditional bookselling.

But the overall impression of Barnes & Noble’s situation in the book industry is not nearly as positive as its owners and investors would like to portray. Publisher’s Weekly reported last week that Barnes & Noble is in the midst of contentious negotiations over terms with Simon & Schuster. “Although the exact nature of the disagreement is not yet clear,” Publisher’s Weekly reported, “Barnes &Noble has significantly reduced its orders from S&S. The main reason for the cutback seems to be, according to sources, Barnes & Noble’s lack of support from S&S.” (One way or another, this means a dispute over the size of discounts and advertising.) Another factor for concern is the impending merger of Random House and Penguin, which is expected to give this corporate behemoth the ability to deal with Google’s Android ecosystem, and Apple’s consumer cachet as well as Amazon’s dominant position in online retailing. There was an initial belief that Borders’ bankruptcy would bring a substantial portion of its in-store business to Barnes & Noble, but that has not turned out to be the case.

“Barnes & Noble is the last bookstore chain standing,” Wharton management professor Steve Kobrin, who is also the publisher of Wharton Digital Press, told the Knowledge@Wharton newsletter. “There’s still a niche there, but it may go to small independent bookstores.”

As I’ve watched these stories over the last few years, here are a few thoughts:

1. There still is a lot of irony in people lamenting the loss of Barnes & Noble today when not too long ago they were lamenting the rise of big box bookstores in general.

2. We could have a larger conversation about reading in society in general. Is this just about Amazon and online retailers taking away business or are less Americans reading in general? (Book sales were down 2.5% in 2011.) This extends to libraries as well: do people go there for books or DVDs?

3. There is room for interesting conversations about the goals bookstores meet in society or the function they play. Are they supposed to be more like “third places,” commercial learning centers where the average citizen can encounter a world of knowledge (commercial versions of a library), or retailers looking to make money? If bookstores are lost, what is really lost? If people aren’t going to bookstores, what are they doing instead?

A growing interest in science cafes in America?

Reuters reports on a supposedly growing trend: science cafes.

Science cafes have sprouted in almost every state including a tapas restaurant near downtown Orlando where Sean Walsh, 27, a graphic designer, describes himself and his friends as some of the laymen in the crowd…

But the typical participant brings at least some college-level education or at least a lively curiosity, said Edward Haddad, executive director of the Florida Academy of Sciences, which helped start up Orlando’s original cafe and organizes the events…

Haddad said the current national push to increase the number of U.S. graduates in science, technology, engineering and math, or the STEM fields, is driving up the number of science cafes…

The U.S. science cafe movement grew out of Cafe Scientifique in the United Kingdom. The first Cafe Scientifique popped up in Leeds in 1998 as a regularly scheduled event where all interested parties could participate in informal forums about the latest in science and technology.

I’m dubious that this is that big of a movement just because “almost every state” now has a science cafe. This is similar to journalists claiming that something is popular because there is a Facebook group devoted to it.

But, this sounds like a fascinating example of a “third place” where Americans can gather between home and work, learn, and interact with others interested in similar topics. In fact, it sounds more like a Parisian salon of the 1800s. However, the article also mentions these cafes are probably more attractive to the NPR crowd and I imagine many Americans would not want to go discuss science in a cafe.

I wonder if the news coverage would be different if Americans were gathering in cafes to talk about other topics. How about The Bachelor? The tea party? Religion? The tone of the article is that it is more unusual for Americans to want to hear about and discuss science when they are not being forced to.

h/t Instapundit

Can you design an attractive “third place” library if it has no books?

A journalist asks an interesting question about libraries: can it be an attractive space if it has no books?

Whether the public library has a digital-only collection, a hard-copy collection, or a combination of both, it is first and foremost a place for ideas. Sure, the spare, clean lines of an Apple store brilliantly focus attention on the excellence of Mac products available for sale, but a public library needs to foster community, inspire idea cross-pollination, and help us draw connections between our past and our future. A public library needs to be a place of comfort  –  a place where its community can come to explore thoughts, feelings and ideas.

Modern library designers are headed in the right direction when they reference sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s “third places.” A third place is an informal public space that’s neither work nor home where people can interact casually and exchange ideas. Third places are the oil that lubricates civic engagement, and Oldenburg believes they need to be physical, not digital. Physical third places bring people with different mind-sets and politics together, but virtual meeting places attract like-minded people, Oldenburg told JWT Intelligence in 2011.

In B.C., the West Vancouver Memorial Library, renovated some half a dozen years ago, did it right. The library is warm, friendly, modern and welcoming with many little nooks to foster human-scaled interaction.  The new Surrey City Centre Library, which opened just over a year ago, did it wrong. Its design might be architecturally stunning, but its large white expanses feel cold and uninviting. Perhaps this will improve when the library gets busier.

San Antonio’s $1.5 million library will have tablets, e-readers and computers, but no physical books. Word is the 5,000 square-foot library will have 100 e-readers to loan out,  plus 50 onsite computer stations, 25 laptops and 25 tablets. Borrowers will be able to check out e-readers for two weeks or simply load books onto their own devices, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

The argument here seems to be that libraries are sterile places without physical books. While the San Antonio library branch referenced here seems to be more progressive in terms of technology, a trend I assume many libraries are trying to follow, it still does have e-readers. What exactly is it about books that makes a space less sterile, particularly if the writer above also suggests the best part of the library in British Columbia is that it has “many little nooks to foster human-scaled interaction”? Can’t a technologically advanced library have a lot of little nooks? Perhaps books give off a sense of stateliness or learning.

I wonder if the opposite argument could be made: having lots of books might foster less social interaction and therefore make a library a less inviting place. Do people necessarily go to find books to read and have social interaction? Some people do indeed go to bookstores for conversations about books (and other media like magazines) but libraries have not traditionally been places for social interaction in the same sense as bookstores or coffee shops.

Sociological concepts that help explain why some companies are telling employees to avoid work email at home

Some companies are telling their employees to not check their work email at home:

In recent years, one in four companies have created similar rules on e-mail, both formal and informal, according to a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. Firms trying out these policies include Volkswagen, some divisions of PricewaterhouseCoopers and shipping company PBD Worldwide.

For the vast majority of companies and federal offices, the muddying of work and personal time has had financial advantages. Corporations and agencies, unable to hire, are more productive than ever thanks in part to work-issued smartphones, tablets and other mobile technology, economists say…

“There is no question e-mail is an important tool, but it’s just gone overboard and encroached in our lives in a way where employees were feeling like it was harder and harder to achieve a good balance,” said Robert Musslewhite, chief executive of the Advisory Board, a health and education research and software-services firm.

Official numbers show just one in 10 people brings work home, according to a Labor Department report in 2010. But economists say that figure is wildly conservative because it counts only those who are clocking in those hours for extra pay.

Three sociological ideas shed some light on this:

1. This increased level of stress might be due to the mixing of the front-stage and back-stage performances of employees. Sociologist Erving Goffman wrote about these two settings, the first where we play a role, in this case as employee, and this requires emotional and physical energy. In the latter setting, we can let down our guard. Checking work email at home means this back-stage setting is interrupted.

2. This reminds me of the work by sociologist Christena Nippert-Eng on the symbolic boundaries between home and work. We place home and work in certain mental categories and so crossing these boundaries can create some difficulties. Sociologist Ray Oldenberg suggested another way around these two symbolic boundaries: we need “third places” like coffee shops and pubs where workers can relax and interact with other citizens in settings distinct from work and home.

3. A few centuries ago, more average citizens may have mixed home and work as people worked in their homes or very near by. It wasn’t until the industrial era that more employees had to travel further to their workplaces, creating a larger physical difference between home and work that also translated into more symbolic difference. Perhaps this story about email is a reminder that at this point in history we are swinging back to mixing  home and work because of technology that transcends physical boundaries.

Talking third places and coffee shops in Calgary

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg talks about coffee shops as great “third places”:

For as long as there’s been coffee houses, a community of coffee drinkers has been meeting there to chat, learn, share, debate, gossip, scheme, read, and, of course, soak in the rituals of the daily brew.

They serve a vital function: a place where people from all walks of life can gather and mingle.

“It’s a great leveller,” says urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, a Florida based author known best for his book The Great Good Place.

“The people in the coffee shop are essentially equals . . . and that allows all sorts of people to associate. Different backgrounds, different attitudes, different lifestyles.”

I wonder if anyone has ever done research about whether coffee is the best product/food item to bring people together. Wouldn’t places like Starbucks attract different kinds of people than independent coffee houses? The article gives us an example of a neighborhood coffee shop where a mix of people come together. Do people at coffee houses talk with strangers or neighbors regularly, particularly younger generations? Are these sorts of places only possible in denser settings?

Bonus: this article has a lot of information about the coffee scene in Calgary. Another sociologist is quoted as saying, “Pound for pound, there’s far more bad coffee in places like New York than there are in Calgary.” I wonder if the quality of coffee shops correlates with larger percentages of residents who are part of the creative class.