Monday, January 18, 2010

McNally Robinson bookstore: can and should it be saved?

Cheer up, bookstore.

We may soon be closing the book on bookstores.

At least that's what crossed my mind yesterday as I spent a couple of hours shopping at McNally Robinson's Grant Park location.

I love shopping for books, and at that bookstore in particular, but my goal yesterday wasn't shopping for shopping's sake: I had over $140 in McNally gift cards and I thought I'd better spend them before the store closes for good.

Of course, I have no insider information whatsoever that this location will shut down soon or ever, but by now everybody knows that the bookstore recently filed for bankruptcy protection, closing two of its stores - including the big one at Polo Park - citing a bad economy and competition from e-books and the Internet.

The Free Press' Morley Walker says the store was "expanding too fast" and taking on "too much debt."

(Disclaimer: the Polo Park McNally store never had the magical vibe of the Grant Park location, or the old Portage Place location for that matter, so it didn't surprise me that it would be the one to close: too much "stuff" and not enough "vibe.")

So, I spent my gift certificates and $40 more on ANNA and Monocle magazines, two travel books on Iceland, Ken Auletta's Googled, Mike Thomas' Second City Unscripted, Carie McLaren's Ad Nauseam, and Bob Newhart's 1967 comedy CD, This is It (not to be confused with the Michael Jackson film!).

With my purchases in hand, I felt like a noble conservationist, the Jack Hanna of the bookstore set, doing my part to save an endangered species.

Then I thought about it:
  • I used gift certificates for the bulk of the purchase, which means that McNally Robinson already had that money when it filed for bankruptcy protection.
  • I take my Kindle out on the town constantly, and complete strangers ask me to see it. When I hand it over, they're wowed and instantly want to buy one. My friend just ordered one for her dad, and another friend - an avowed book lover - ordered the large and small versions of the device.
  • Finally, I've downloaded the free Kindle app onto my iPhone, which allows me to start reading a book on the Kindle, then continue to read it on my iPhone right where I left off. Cool! But am I helping to shut down bookstores while I'm at it? Not cool!
The argument

I love technology and I love books, so what am I supposed to do? I've recently expressed this dilemma to some of my friends, and been surprised by the two very different reactions that I've been getting in response:

Reaction 1:
"We have to shop at McNally Robinson as much as possible to keep the store afloat."
Reaction 2:
"I've been ordering books from Amazon for 10 years, and if McNally couldn't see this coming and can't run their business so they make money, that's their problem."
I can see both arguments.

On one hand, my consumer needs are being better met than ever before. I order and download stuff from Amazon at least 10 times a year, which I've been doing since pretty much the birth of the site.

Unlike a lot of people, I've never had a problem with entering my credit card number online, especially after discovering that Amazon actually works: the stuff often arrives at my front door just two days after I order it - from the U.S. and the U.K.

After hundreds of orders, I've only ever had two problems: once sent me an empty CD case instead of one with a CD in it, and once sent me five Magnetic Fields CDs I ordered - twice!

I actually tracked down a customer service number, called the company, and the kindly gentleman said, "Since the cost would be prohibitive to send them back, just keep them." No problemo, kind sir!

McNally, on the other hand, is a local institution. It's made for browsing and impulse buys (unlike websites, which aren't). There are always great friends and interesting strangers hanging out there. It's the best place in town to buy local books, and go to the book signings to get them autographed. The people who work there know their books. And it just feels nice to be there.

But I used to feel that way about music stores. Now, I still browse in the few remaining music stores - HMV, Music Trader, Into the Music - and I still love them, but rarely do I make a purchase of any significance: I've got thousands of CDs at home, not to mention song downloads on my iPod and iTunes, and free music videos on YouTube, so how much more music do I really need in my life?

The iPod showed us that everyone could have the exact same music collection, but what really mattered was the device. The Kindle does the same for books - people notice the device, but no one asks you what you're reading on it; for all they know, you're staring at a blank screen.

The future of the bookstore?

The best hope for the bookstore is to play up the things we love about it - the experience! - link it to the convenience of buying books in a variety of formats, and to find new ways to get us to pay for the privilege.

Maybe the future of the bookstore will be something along the lines of a library meets book club meets coffee shop meets social club meets entertainment venue: you pay an annual fee to read, borrow, print, or download anything you like, attend events, drink coffee, and hang out with your friends.

If the act of reading isn't about the content, then it's got to be about the device or the bookstore. If it's not about the bookstore, then before we know it, McNally Robinson will only be in the business of selling nostalgia.


  1. I like McNally a lot, and hope it's able to be saved. I shopped at the Polo Park location a lot, and if I were able to get to Grant Park more, I'd be going there as well.

    It might be beneficial for them to get into the digital book business as well. Would the Kindle be able to "read" books downloaded from sources other than Amazon?

    I agree that books stores need to sell the experience. I know that the rare occasion I'm in a book store, I'm there for at least an hour, usually closer to two, because browsing is just so much fun!

  2. Kenton! Are you going to Iceland?!

  3. It's funny that you're posting this, considering a new post on about the new Apple Tablet, which is supposed to blow the Kindle out of the water. But that's a technology thing.
    I am a firm believer that physical books will be around for a long time still, much longer than CDs. The reason being that books require more of a time investment from readers than listening to a song or album. People love their books, and I think it will take another 50 years perhaps before a device like the Kindle replaces them for good.
    That doesn't mean that company like Amazon still can't make a killing selling them online. I think McNally's woes are due directly - as Mr Walker suggests - to their aggressive expansion during one of the worst recessions in recent memory. I'm sure that their flagship store at Grant Park will be the last one to close, if the company can't resolve their financial problems, so you still have some time to shop, Kenton.

  4. Yes, Cindy, I'm going to Iceland - I know that you are too, thanks to your blog! Just waiting to confirm the dates...

  5. I, for one, can't even read!

  6. Ha, ha! The best anonymous comment I've ever read!

  7. Do you want to know what you should do with that ridiculous kindle of yours? Hide it under your bed! That thing is like porn...people should never know you read it. You people and your technology.

    But seriously,don't you think McNally is already a library-like place where you meet friends for a coffee and then, since it's convenient, you browse at the books. One person in a Free Press article not long ago said she didn't even buy books there, she just comes to read them in the store. (That woman will cost me my job! Ah!)And then if we were to make bookstores, ultimately, book clubs that you pay to go to...well how many people have the time for book clubs anymore?

    Maybe publishing companies could start releasing special features of books that can only be bought in store? Of course that would down-size stores and their revenue, but at least they would still be there for us book collectors right?

  8. Does it make me a bad Winnipegger if I admit I prefer the new Indigo.

    McNally lost me when they abandoned the downtown.

  9. Went to Iceland a couple of years ago. Loved it! I know it is a cliché, but go to the Blue Lagoon. I could have stayed in that water all day.

    I want to see this Kindle of yours.

    Breathlessly awaiting Jan. 27 (is that the date?) when the Tablet is likely to be announced. Not holding my breath about when I'll be able to afford one.

    I think someday bookstores will be specialist stores, like art galleries, as the bestsellers will all be consumed as e-books.

    And contrary to what Jamis at Turnstone was saying to us the other day, Kenton, I think niche stuff like poetry totally has a future in e-books. Low production cost. Low distribution cost.

    I do feel trepidation, though, about the further concentration of the means of media distribution.

    See, I have opinions.

  10. I love McNally, and I really hope that what they're doing saves it.

    Not only is it a great environment, with a ton of great, unique things to offer - but I appreciate all the support it offers to local (and most times self-funded) authors. That's a fantastic thing. Amazon and the bigger companies will never be able do the same thing. Definitely not on a local scale.

    Of course I still shop on Amazon, but that doesn't stop me from visiting McNally for my purchases too.


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