Notes from Candice Ransom

Dear James Daunt


Dear James Daunt,

 Some people don’t think you can save Barnes and Noble bookstores, but I’m cheering you on.  You turned around Waterstones, that gem of a bookstore chain in Britain.  You understand that we need bookstores, even Barnes and Noble, often the only bookstore in some areas in America.

A good bookstore is a place where we can find books we want but also, and more importantly, books we didn’t know we wanted.  That’s hard to do at B&N.  You walk in and are slammed with the latest celebrity bios, Patterson/Baldacci/Grisham thrillers, and kids’ books about farting.  Also, too many books with f*ck in the title, as if the asterisk makes it okay.

As you noticed in the New York City flagship Barnes and Noble, a table of books at the entrance has no “rhyme or reason”— a cookbook next to a National Geographic book about national parks next to a historical novel.  I’ve been in that store several times.  Despite three packed floors, I’ve never bought a single book there.  The same books are in my B&N back home.  For that matter, I’ve gone into our B&N countless times over the years, walked around and left again, my hands as empty as my feelings about that store.

Our store has too many toys, too few places to sit down, and no books that haven’t been ordered by corporate in New York.  Please, Mr. Daunt, in your plans to change the stores get rid of the music.  Nothing makes me feel less like browsing than an earful of twitchy Kenny G or Zero Mostel bellowing, “If I Were a Rich Man.”  The café is nice but not everyone drinks expensive grande lattes.  Ours used to have complementary ice water.  When that amenity vanished, I was told, “We’re not allowed to do that now. You can buy bottled water.”  Really?  Will Barnes and Noble charge its customers for oxygen next?

When my husband and I were in London in September, about the time you moved to New York from the UK, I couldn’t wait to get to Waterstones on Piccadilly.  Five floors of book nirvana.  It looks like a bookstore, wood bookcases, inviting tables, comfortable armchairs in squares of sunlight.  My yardstick for a decent bookstore is the natural history section.  At our B&N, natural history consists of a stingy two or three shelves.  At Waterstones, an entire wing— four walls deep with end caps and a table with more titles—is devoted to natural history.  I grabbed an armload right away.

Mr. Daunt, you have promised to make our Barnes and Noble a genuine community, where people can read, exchange ideas, listen to authors speak, think about the important things in their lives, dream.  Is it possible to extend that concept beyond the bookstore?  Let your bookstore community wash over barbeque eateries, tire stores, Walmarts, and colonies of townhouses under construction on every available scrap of land?

We need to honor our history, preserve green spaces.  When the world is too much with us, as Wordsworth wrote, we want to carry that sense of community outside the bookstore, step away from “getting and spending,” for we are sorely out of tune, in the words of that good poet.

As I write this in my local Barnes and Noble on Black Friday, the store is filled with bored teenagers scrolling Instagram on their phones and shoppers desperate to find Frozen 2 Olaf Follow Me Friend because Target has sold out.  It’s a tall order, Mr. Daunt, to fix our broken bookstore and give our throw-away, self-involved society the best of what I observed in your country—civility, tradition, fierce dedication to protect endangered wild spaces.

Outside, traffic snarls around Old Navy and Best Buy and Kohls.  No one looks up to see a string of Canada geese fly low over big box rooftops, calling to our better angels.  I hope you are one.


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