Why I'm Done With Barnes & Noble

Today I window-shopped a little for a new copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbi t. I don’t yet know which edition I’m going to buy, but I know I’m not going to buy it at Barnes & Noble. Let me explain why.

First, I should observe that the net flow of books is still primarily out of my house. My goal in life right now is to simplify, simplify, simplify, and I simply don’t need all of these big heavy paper things sitting in my space proclaiming my hipness. This is what libraries are for. Beyond a few works of rarity or artistic significance (I’ll never get rid of my Codex Seraphinianus), I’m happy to not have the physical objects in my house.

This doesn’t mean I don’t read, mind you - I have jumped into e-books in a big way, and I find them preferable in almost every way to their paper compatriots. But specifically for reading aloud to others, there’s something communal about a book, and The Hobbit is a book that rewards reading aloud.

So I want to buy a physical copy of The Hobbit. While window-shopping at Amazon, I went looking for a particular edition at Barnes & Noble, and visiting their web site reminded me why I hate them. It has to do with the divide between their online store and their brick and mortar store.

In my mind, the existence of the brick and mortar stores is, quite possibly, the only reason I would use Barnes & Noble over Amazon: if I want it today, then maybe I would want to swing by a store and buy it. Let’s use this edition of The Hobbit as an example. I didn’t actually buy this book today, but this is how it worked for a different book the last time I bought one (Haroun and the Sea of Stories, if you must know). Here’s how the shopping experience works if you want to buy a book at B&N; and pick it up at their store.

First, you go to the page for the book you want. It has an “online price” (in this example, $25). You give your zip code in the “Pick Me Up” dialog box, and it checks local inventory, and tells you what nearby stores have the book. So far, so good. If you want to get it at one of the stores, you press the bright happy “Pick Me Up” button, and go to the corresponding store in about an hour.

You arrive at the store and say “Hi, I’d like to pick up and pay for my copy of The Hobbit.” They say “Yes, sir, we have it right here. That will be $34.99 plus tax.”

Now, to give Barnes & Nobles their due, they do have some language, in 8 point text at the bottom of the page, quietly mentioning “Store and online prices may vary.” But on the other hand, if the e-commerce site for your book- retailing company with 5 billion dollars a year in revenue cannot manage to tell me what I’m going to pay at the time I actually click to reserve the book, they can go jump in a very deep, very cold, and very filthy lake.

Let me be perfectly clear: I do not begrudge them their price difference. I do not begrudge them charging more in brick and mortar stores. All I want is for them to tell me how much they expect me to pay before I click the button that, emotionally, commits me to getting in my car and driving to their storefront. That little bit of deception by sleight-of-hand, that little bit of screw-the- customer attitude, is all I need to convince me that if I’m going to give money to someone for a physical book, that someone is never going to be Barnes & Noble.

I hope they enjoyed the extra $7 they got out of me for Haroun and the Sea of Stories, because it’s the last $7 they’ll ever see from me.