Barnes and Noble v. Borders

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My wife and I spent part of the weekend in Washington, D.C. before we had to cut our trip short owing to a severe cold that I caught on Friday.  Any trip to Washington must include a stop at one of the major bookstore chains.  Here in Charlottesville we have a Barnes and Noble, but given that this is a university town you would assume that this particular branch would have a deep selection of books in most subject areas.  That is not the case at all.  The Civil War section is absolutely pathetic as are most other areas of history.  I enjoy bookstores, especially the chance to spend some time browsing through different titles.  You can find anything on Amazon, but there is still something to being able to hold a book and flip through its pages. 

Our first stop was the B&N on M Street in Georgetown.  I thought they would have a much better selection compared with C-Ville; too my dismay the selection was even worse.  In fact their entire U.S. History selection was a disappointment and I was able to walk through it in less than 5 minutes.  That night we walked over the Borders on L and 17th Street after dinner.  The difference is night and day.  I tend to read university press books so it was nice to see a selection of recent titles from most of the presses.  I found and purchased Brian Dirck’s new edited collection Lincoln Emancipated: The President and the Politics of Race (Northern Illinois University Press, 2007).  [I recently heard Philip S. Paludan give a talk at the Univeristy of Virginia where he touched on the topic of his contribution to the collection.]  In short, the selection is much deeper.  Better yet they divide U.S. History into sections, including Colonial/Revolution, Civil War, Nineteenth Century and Modern History.  I don’t know how you explain the difference in selection.  Perhaps buyers are more focused on a given area and have the opportunity to ensure that each section is well stocked.  Whatever the case I miss not having this selection in my hometown. 

I should come clean and say that I’ve known about this difference in selection for quite some time.  Back in the mid-1990s I worked for a Borders store in Rockville, Maryland.  It’s a large store and the selection is excellent.  At the time I managed the magazine section so I was not involved with the stocking or ordering of books.  It was a great place to work at the time, and it was here where I fell in love with Civil War history.  I ran a Civil War book club that met once a month and typically included the historian whose book we were discussing  Guests included Craig Symonds and Kevin C. Ruffner.  I also organized a one-day Civil War book signing that included Brian Pohanka, James Kegel, Ed Fischel, William Matter, Greg Clemmer, Craig Symonds and others.  It was a lot of fun.

7 comments… add one

  • Rob Wick Mar 5, 2007

    Kevin,

    As I work for Barnes and Noble, let me start by saying that this is in no way meant to reflect the company’s policies or position on anything. I am speaking as an individual who happens to work there (and is in charge of the history section for one of the stores). Our selection has dropped considerably (especially my Civil War section) but I can’t give you a good reason for it. I’ve heard the complaint from several customers but as one who keeps his finger on the pulse of other stores, I can’t say Borders is any better (at least the ones I visit). I guess it all boils down to money. If books aren’t selling, they won’t stay on the shelf.

    Best
    Rob

  • Kevin Levin Mar 5, 2007

    Hi Rob, — There seems to be a noticeable difference in metropolitan areas, but you may be right that overall the two chains offer selections that are comparable. In the end you are correct that its all about what sells. When I worked for Borders the largest section by far was the Self-Help and Spirituality sections. I used to get into trouble by suggesting to customers that they not waste their time with such books. :)

  • Phil LeDuc Mar 5, 2007

    Kevin,

    Based on my years of bookshopping at B&N and Borders stores in the Seattle area, I’ve found that Borders is a clear winner when it comes to the History area. Like you, I much prefer the way Borders divides its sections, and the selection is generally much broader and more likely to contain titles from university presses. The downtown Seattle Borders beats both the downtown Seattle B&N and the B&N near the University of Washington in their selection of Colonial/Revolutionary and Civil War titles; in fact it even beats the University Bookstore in my opinion.

    By the way, as a relative newcomer to this blog (and various other history blogs in general), I always look forward to your postings. Best wishes for continued success.

  • Kevin Levin Mar 5, 2007

    Phil, — Nice to hear from a new reader and thanks for the perspective from the left coast.

  • Phil LeDuc Mar 22, 2007

    Further (belated) follow-up on B&N vs. Borders – Today’s (3/22/07) Wall Street Journal has a brief report on merger rumors surrounding B&N and Borders Group. While understandable from a business sense, as a book buyer I’d hate to see it happen for the reasons mentioned in my previous comment.

  • chris in illinois Mar 24, 2007

    I’m the manager of a B&N store in the midwest. I can tell you that each store has A LOT of autonomy in its selection. The problem is that even though there are lots and lots of History titles that I’d like to stock (I was a history major), in the end the only thing that matters is sales.

    Which, being a retail operation, is how it should be. My shelves correspond to what my customers tell me they want. Two years ago I had maybe 3-4 shelves of Manga books, right now I have easily 40-45. We analyze our sales and make appropiate decisions as what we stock. As much as we may not like it personally, Doris Kearns Goodwin will always be stocked in favor of another monograph of General P.T. Beauregard…sales matter.

  • Kevin Levin Mar 25, 2007

    I am with you pretty much all the way Chris and thanks for taking the time to write. Still, I think you can take your line of thought too far. As I mentioned I worked for a large Borders store just outside of D.C. in the mid-90s. I managed the magazine section, but kept close tabs on the American History/Civil War section. I made sure that the selection was deep. It seems to me that you can emaphasize what sells and still offer a fairly wide selection of titles in other areas. That’s exactly what we did at Borders and that still seems to be the difference between the two companies. I’ve travelled to a few Borders stores in the past few weeks and they all seem to have a deeper selection of history titles. There must be a difference between the way the two chains order and decide on titles. If I remember correctly, Borders codes their book by subject area and even within subject area so this may give orderers a clearer sense of what is needed on the shelves. Anyway, thanks again for commenting.

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