I finally figured out what it is that I love about Barnes & Noble. It is true that they’ve driven hundreds of small, independent book stores out of business. It’s also true that, in many ways, it isn’t even a real book store so much as a general purveyor of anything people might be willing to buy. They are pushing toys, music, games, writing utensils, calendars, and particularly expensive notebooks. They don’t even have real Starbuck’s coffee. What I love about Barnes & Noble is that they attract the nicest, most civilized customers to be found in any business around town.
You could probably say the same thing about almost any bookstore. Prairie Lights, in Iowa City, is a wonderful place. But Cedar Falls doesn’t have anything comparable, and we are almost 100 miles from Iowa City. We don’t even have a Borders, Walden’s, or B. Dalton. And if someone has a small, independent, bookstore operating in Cedar Falls, they need to do some advertising. For a college town, we are in a pitiful position. That leaves me with Barnes & Noble. And, even if they might be responsible for consigning all their competition to the scrapheap of once-upon-a-bookstores, all those people who used to be found in the various bookstores around town have now taken to getting their book-fix at B & N..
Truthfully, I may be as much responsible for the death of the modern bookstore as anyone. I love the electronic reader. These days, most of my reading is done on either the Nook or the smart-phone. I love the convenience and ease provided by modern technology. I love to discover a new book, buy it electronically, download it, and be reading in seconds. And I know that makes me part of the problem, To salve my conscience, I do buy real, paper books that I expect to use for research, or that I might someday attempt to thumb through looking for specific information, quotes, or whatever. Also, I do like to have a paper copy of favorite books. I’ve read A Tale of Two Cities on the Nook, but I still enjoy going back to the feel of the old fashioned paper edition. Treasure Island is on my Nook, but my last reading used the hardcover edition. Same goes for To Kill a Mockingbird. And Little Women, and Little Men. And don’t forget Ivanhoe (I know; I came from a different generation).
But all of that is still a little off the subject. The other day I accompanied my wife, Shar, to Barnes & Noble where she was a volunteer gift wrapper in a fund raiser for the UNI museum (Yes, the museum does still exist even if it has no home of it’s own). For two hours she wrapped Christmas gifts for customers. I, on the other hand, tried to fill the same two hours by browsing the store. And the time flew. I browsed, I read, I browsed some more, I exchanged pleasantries with other browsers. And even on a Saturday afternoon with only one more weekend before Christmas, they were a friendly, mostly outgoing lot. Readers are like that, but something about the atmosphere they create, encourages the same civility in everyone around. The most negative comment I heard in two hours of wandering the store was a slightly defensive, slightly challenging, “I’ve only read three books in my life” from a fortyish male to his female companion. And even he seemed to be genuinely enjoying his outing to the king of today’s booksellers. I didn’t stalk him (we readers are also very tolerant), but I doubt that he actually bought anything for himself. Nevertheless, we all had a good time. Nobody turned rude, nobody snickered, and I, for one, had a lot better time than I would have at Walmart.
What I love about Barnes & Noble is that it’s full of readers. And their friends.