Last week I made a rare appearance at the Barnes & Noble that’s located at Bowie Town Center in Bowie, Maryland.

For most of my life, it would’ve been unthinkable for me to say that I rarely go to bookstores because I was literally raised on books. Even though my parents only had high school diplomas, they both loved to read books. For many years my mother was a member of the Book of the Month Club (which, in those pre-World Wide Web days, meant mail order). One of my grandmothers lived with us while I was growing up and she used to love to read books as well even though she dropped out of Catholic school after the 8th grade.

Sometimes, as an occasional Sunday afternoon treat, the family would head to the News Center, which sold newspapers, magazines, and paperback books. (I never saw that store carry any hardcover books.) The News Center was a small locally-owned store located in Glen Burnie that was allowed to legally open on Sundays because it had few employees. (Maryland had the Blue Laws in effect at the time.)

As an adult I continued to go to bookstores. One of the things that drew me to my future ex-husband was that he was an even bigger bookworm than me. (His late mother worked for a few years as a children’s librarian for the public library in Armonk, New York from the time that was shortly before his father left her for someone else to her remarriage when she moved to Phoenix.) We used to frequently go to Crown Books (which sadly became defunct because certain members of the family who ran the chain started feuding with each other in a drama that was straight out of some reality television show). When Borders started opening stores in the DC area, we would go out dates to the one nearest our home.

In the meantime Barnes & Noble also started opening large stores in our area. While I liked going to Barnes & Noble, I preferred Borders, especially when Barnes & Noble began this annual membership program where members would get 10% off the retail price of books. Borders also had such a membership program. The difference is that Borders’ program was free while Barnes & Noble charged $25 per year. Of course it was a no-brainer which store’s membership program I preferred.

What made shopping at Barnes & Noble even more annoying is that the store clerks constantly pressured customers at the checkout line to pay the $25 for the membership. To be honest, I didn’t do enough shopping at Barnes & Noble to even justify paying such a fee, especially when Borders’ membership program was free. (I later learned that there was a reason why the Barnes & Noble store clerks were so pushy about the membership program.)

But then Borders came out with something called a premium membership where, for $15, one got to save more money on books. When the clerk pushed that membership upgrade, I decided to give it a shot since it was still cheaper than Barnes & Noble.

But, then, just three months later, Borders went out of business. I was pretty peeved since that store clerk had sold me that premium membership that ultimately lasted no more than three months. But then I got a letter by both e-mail and snail mail announcing that the Borders premium membership was being converted into Barnes & Noble membership. I eventually received a Barnes & Noble membership card so I decided to give it a try since the membership was good for one year.

In addition, I had undergone hip revision surgery in 2011 and the outpatient physical therapy clinic that I used was located near a Barnes & Noble store in Bowie so I had more opportunities to shop at that store. I found that, even with a membership card, I didn’t buy a lot of books. After my husband walked out on me just three months after my surgery, my Barnes & Noble membership had reached its end so I opted not to renew because I didn’t make enough purchases to justify the $25 membership fee. I also stopped purchasing anything other than drinks from the Starbucks cafe located in the store because I didn’t want to have some store clerk push me into renewing.

In addition there was another reason why I didn’t renew my membership card. I’m going to show you with some pictures that I took with my smartphone.

The next two photos show a line of 18-inch dolls on sale known as espari. The dolls are cute and I like some of their clothes. They are cheaper than the American Girl doll. But here’s the thing: I don’t go to bookstores expecting to shop for dolls. I go to bookstores expecting to shop for—well, um—books!

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Then there are the American Girl dolls. Okay, Barnes & Noble only sells one kind of American Girl doll—namely, the small 9-inch mini doll version of the 2015 Girl of the Year, Grace Thomas. And the mini doll comes with a miniature version of the book Grace so, at least, there’s a more rational reason for Barnes & Noble stocking this doll as opposed to the espari dolls which, as far as I can tell from looking at the packaging, doesn’t even come with a book.

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And then there’s a large rack devoted to toys based on the television show Doctor Who.

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And there is a section devoted to classic board games like checkers and chess.

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Basically the toys and games outnumber the books. On top of it, at least a quarter of the store is devoted to Barnes & Noble’s own e-reader, Nook, which has failed to catch on compared to the Kindle or iPad.

So, walking around inside Barnes & Noble, I see less books and more stuff of the kind that I would find at Target or K-Mart. And even the few books that this store has on hand tends to favor bestsellers or ones written by celebrities. A case in point: here’s a series of young adult novels that were written by Jeff Probst, who’s more well-known as the host of the CBS reality show Survivor. Judging by the covers in the picture below, it looks like Probst basically based his books on his experiences with working on the Survivor show.

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I’m not saying that bookstores should never stock bestsellers. But I miss the days when I used to leisurely browse Borders where I bypassed the bestselling racks in favor of other shelves to see what was there. From time to time I found a hidden gem that I found interesting enough to purchase. While the books I picked weren’t bestsellers, I still enjoyed reading them. Sadly, due to Barnes & Noble’s insistence on stocking Nooks, toys, and games at the expense of actual books, the days of looking for those hidden gems are now long gone. Seeing greater floor space devoted to non-book items was a major factor why I decided against renewing my $25 Barnes & Noble membership fee and why I haven’t made any purchases at Barnes & Noble since 2011. If someone recommends a book to me, I can generally find it much easier at Amazon.com than at a brick-and-mortar Barnes & Noble store.

Going through that store I find myself wondering why Barnes & Noble managed to hang on while Borders is now gone. Between the lack of actual books and the clerks trying to push membership cards on customers at the checkout line, I have totally lost enthusiasm for making any kind of special trips to Barnes & Noble. These days I see articles on how Barnes & Noble can reverse its decline and become relevant again.

As for me, I would only consider buying another book from Barnes & Noble if that store would do just one thing: Get rid of the annual $25 membership card. Instead, institute some kind of pricing policy like “Buy 3 books, get 10% off” or something like that. Crown Books used to routinely offer books at a discount and it did it without requiring anyone to join any kind of membership. Ditto for Amazon.com. Borders initially started its membership program to be free. Even its premium membership was cheaper than Barnes & Noble. Just once I would like to purchase something at Barnes & Noble without having a checkout clerk trying to push me to pay an additional $25 for its membership card.

In other words, if Barnes & Noble continues with pushing its $25 membership card, I’ll take my business elsewhere—online to either Amazon or Powell’s Books.

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