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Can Barnes & Noble save the bookstore?

As the nation's preeminent bookseller undergoes its own digital transition, it needs to figure out how to keep hundreds of brick-and-mortar locations relevant.

Over the weekend, I drove to a local mall to go see a movie, but got stuck in traffic and missed the showtime--so I visited the mall's Barnes & Noble bookstore instead.

Barnes & Noble's flagship store on New York's Fifth Avenue
Barnes & Noble's flagship store on New York's Fifth Avenue Beyond My Ken/Wikipedia

It was the first time I'd been in this particular Barnes & Noble in awhile, and I noticed several changes. For one thing, a large booth selling B&N's Nook e-readers was located so close to the front doors that it was impossible to enter the store without seeing the Nooks and overhearing a staffer explaining them to other shoppers.

Reminders of the Nook's virtues were strategically placed elsewhere in the store, too, such as signs in the magazine section touting digital magazine subscriptions.

Barnes & Noble has been selling books since 1873, but it's selling fewer of them these days--or at least devoting less floor space to them. Areas that were once filled with books are now devoted to greeting cards, toys and games, and other products. And most of the folks on the store's upper floor were hanging out at the spacious coffee shop, not browsing the shelves.

The tweaks were no mystery: Barnes & Noble is changing because the way we read is changing. For most of the venerable merchant's history, reading generally involved something you might have bought in a bookstore: a book, a magazine, or a newspaper. Today, however, all of these materials compete with digital books and magazines, not to mention the Web itself. It's not entirely clear that the world will need great big physical bookstores forever.

Julie Bosman of The New York Times has a great piece on B&N and its CEO, William Lynch, and how they're trying to make the digital transition while keeping 703 brick-and-mortar bookstores relevant. It mentions some of the changes I noticed during my visit, plus more. (The company is experimenting with smaller stores and is phasing out its CD and DVD sections.)

Bosman's article explains that the companies that produce books are deeply concerned about Barnes & Noble's ongoing viability. With longtime arch-rival Borders dead, it's the country's only national bookstore chain, and its failure would be a catastrophic blow to the publishing ecosystem. So the industry wants it to stick around for a long time to come.

Me, too. And while I don't know a thing about the book business, I do buy a lot of books--and I have a few suggestions for further changes that might increase B&N's appeal in the digital age.

A more inventive selection, more inventively displayed. Sorry, B&N, but my favorite local bookseller is Green Apple Books, an independent in San Francisco that's filled to the brim with fascinating stuff. I can't go in there without immediately stumbling across several books I want to buy. By comparison, today's B&N stores have a bland, cautious feel: They're largely about the books I already know, not the ones I'd never discover otherwise.

More art books. Nooks, Kindles, and iPads still aren't great when it comes to heavily illustrated volumes. Their screens are too small and they don't have enough pixels. I suspect that coffee table books will still sell well even after novels and other more text-oriented books have mostly gone digital, so the more of them B&N stocks, the better.

Discounts! When B&N stores first started popping up everywhere, the chain's slogan was "If you paid full price, you didn't get it at Barnes & Noble." Somewhere along the line, the company ditched automatic price breaks on non-bestsellers in favor of discounts granted only to members of a club that costs $25 a year. (It must be a profit center--at the store yesterday, a cashier was trying to browbeat customers into joining up.) Given that B&N's principal competitor is Amazon, where discounts of 30, 40, and 50 percent are the norm, its books almost always feel overpriced. Might it sell many more if it charged a little less?

Bundling. What if you could stroll into a Barnes & Noble, buy a dead-tree book, and add the Nook digital version for a modest fee? Publishers probably hate this notion, since they'd see it as devaluing the digital editions. But I'll bet they'd hate the possibility of B&N going out of business or closing hundreds of stores even more.

I don't bring up these ideas because I think that they haven't occurred to Barnes & Noble. Actually, I'm sure it's considered all of them. But I'm rooting for the chain to figure out a future that works--and if there are Barnes & Noble stores 20 or 30 years from now, the only thing we know for sure is that they'll be strikingly different from the ones we know today.