Who knows what the proprietors of Barnes & Noble expected last summer when they announced that B & N bookstores would begin offering free wireless internet in their in-house coffee shops. On its website, under "Top 10 Reasons to Shop at Barnes & Noble," the corporation intones, "We have always wanted our stores to feel like home—a place where people can relax, explore and connect with ideas and each other at their leisure" (explore each other? In public?). What's happening is that Barnes & Noble is becoming less and less a place where people who have money go to buy books and lattes, and more and more a place where people with no money go when there's nowhere else to go. New Yorkers are turning the Big and Nasty--the name that makes independent booksellers quake in their boots--will-it-nil-it, into a public library. It's a bit like when you steamroll a patch of woodlands (eh, Cornell?), driving the green growing things deep underground. But a few root systems remain intact. Slowly they start putting up cautious little green shoots, spreading long, jagged cracks in the asphalt, and before you know it--in two, three hundred years--WHAM.
A library is basically a secular church. It's a sanctuary, a public space where anyone is welcome, no matter how they're dressed or how badly they smell or whether or not they have somewhere to live. As long as you behave in a way that conforms to the barest standards of civil decency, you can stay there all day and no one will throw you out. You have access to books, bathrooms, microfiles, the long tables with their clusters of studying patrons, newspapers and magazines, computers and wifi--and you don't have to buy anything to get that access. It's your birthright as a citizen of this fantastic country.
A coffee shop is a different beast. All you get at a coffee shop is a couple square feet of table space and maybe wifi, maybe for free. Restrooms are for customers only. If you want to use these resources, you're expected to patronize the shop--to buy, at minimum, a cup of tea. The tea at your elbow, in porcelain mug or lidded paper sippy cup, gives you permission to occupy the table, keeping it from the next ravenous tea-guzzling New Yorker whose pockets may be deeper than yours. But it doesn't give you permission to linger. Many coffee shops have signs asking customers not to hold tables--at The Grey Dog's Coffee by Union Square, an image of Smokey Bear warns, "Only you can prevent table hibernation." The irony is an attempt to laugh away the sign's menacing quality. Exactly how much does non-consumption time cost? Most places don't have this exactly calibrated--Aroma Espresso Bar in SoHo does. Each item you buy, rounding out to about 2.50 a pop for pastries and espresso drinks, comes with a pin number which allows you to use the cafe's wireless for half an hour.
The Barnes & Noble coffee shop represents some kind of misty conceptual Niflheim in between. Signs politely remind you that "This area of our cafe is reserved for cafe customers only." No one enforces them. I have a cup by my computer--who's to say whether it's full of piping hot liquid I just purchased, or empty because I bought a cup of tea two hours ago and have been here ever since? (pssst: it's the latter). As in a coffee shop, the tables are duet-sized, but there are so many of them (I count 64) that you feel anonymous, like you can get away with anything. Just like in a library, you may end up sharing your space with a stranger, because if all the tables are full someone will probably ask to sit with you (which doesn't always work out; one time in the Court St. B & N I asked an elderly lady if I could share her table, and she looked at me like I had offered to punch her grandchildren). One of the most important resources at any public library is the periodical room--a section that stocks newspapers and magazines so that you can be literate and cultured and up to date and still avoid parting with $250 a year for a subscription to Publisher's Weekly. At Barnes & Noble, the magazine racks are placed invitingly near the entrance to the cafe, and people will grab whatever it is--Cardigan Fancier's Monthly, The Journal of Alien Abductee Commentary, Crockpot Cookery for Manly Men--and take it right to their tables to read, by-passing the cashier in the process. When they walk away, will they bring those magazines, on whose pages they have left chocolatey thumb-prints, downstairs to pay for them? Hell no! They'll leave them on the table. A minute later, an attendant will swoop down with a cart and carry them off to be reshelved--just like in a library. The woman to my left has selected an impressive stack of books on physics and the philosophy of math. She's slowly paging through them, taking notes. A girl in a puffy coat has a half-dozen fashion magazines spread out across her table. Two 20-somethings are bending over a standardized test practice book. They are marking it up in pencil. Did they pay for it first? No one asks. Seven young men have pushed together three tables; their bible-study group meets here. The guy I've chosen to table-share with is reading The Game. No wonder this spot was open. Any minute now he's going to look up and say timidly, "That's a pretty goddamn hideous hat you have on."
How can Barnes & Noble countenance this kind of behavior? It's not even so much that the patrons might destroy the merchandise--it's that they are obviating the need to purchase it at all. Why buy books or magazines, when you can read them here for free in relative comfort? It seems to me that the stores stock less literature, and more puzzle books, board games, self-help manuals, and gifty crap, than they used to. Unfettered access to the materials goes up, and the quality and quantity of those materials goes down. I wouldn't be surprised if, in the next few years, books sold in the stores cease to figure significantly in the company's profits--everything will come from online sales and e-books. Whatever hit B & N might be taking in "book" sales is probably just a drop in the ocean.
So if you're going to buy a book--by which I mean paper pages, sewn into a binding--please do it at an independent bookstore. If you just want to read for a couple hours, please join me in ripping off Barnes and Noble. They can afford it.
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