Big-Box Bookstores Go Belly-Up! Is Bad Design to Blame?

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By Stephanie Murg Comment

We were sad to learn—via an “Everything Must Go!” e-mail—that our trusty Manhattan Borders is among the “underperforming” stores that will be shuttered as part of the embattled bookseller’s reorganization. The 40-year-old chain filed for bankruptcy last week, a development that prompted much pontificating. While many pointed to e-books and Amazon [cut to shot of a laughing Jeff Bezos setting a pile of paperbacks ablaze], Tyler Brûlé found a smoking gun amidst the bricks and mortar: poor store design. Big-box bookstores are simply, well, too big, wrote the Monocle editor in a recent column for the Financial Times:

Scan the parking lots of many U.S. malls and there’s a good chance you’ll spot a red brick or yellow stucco box belonging to a book retailer bolted on to a bigger yellow stucco box that anchors a host of other similar looking boxes with backlit logos, no windows and zero personality. Inside the book box, the experience is bewildering and alienating. The lighting is bright and harsh, there’s a vague scent of popcorn and there’s not a sales person or shelf-stocker in sight.

The store is so big and devoid of any hint of coziness that you feel there’s little need to return because you never locked eyes with a sales person, never found a welcoming corner to linger and browse, didn’t stumble on any literary surprises and ultimately didn’t connect as a customer.

Brûlé prefaces this critique with a description of his perfect bookstore: a quaint, bay-windowed establishment replete with “well-worn harvest tables,” creaky oak floors, and long-serving, well-paid staffers dressed either in “cozy cardigans” (men) or loafers and kilts (women), all infused with the aromas of various papers, ink, glue, linen, card-stock, and toxic varnishes. “Perhaps the most important detail,” he notes, “is that you can see all the way to the back of the shop from the front door but once inside you discover there are enough cozy nooks and corners to get lost in an absorbing first chapter.” Note to Barnes & Noble: not that kind of nook.

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