Love Loses: Barnes and Noble’s Big Fat Bell Book Fail

If you read John Wins: When Rob Bell’s Editor Calls, you know I’m thinking about doing a book with an actual, real book publisher. I’m a little hesitant about doing that because, as we all know, the e-book revolution has been unto the book publishing industry what the CD was to cassette tapes. And this player knows there’s no rewind button on history. For me, it’s fast-forward all the way, until I’ve crossed the tape into the record books.

And that, my friends, is exactly the kind of high-wire metaphorical artistry that moves the likes of famous authors and big-deal book publishers to often totally think about responding to my calls, emails, letters, instant messages, and attempts to catch them on Skype.

Troubled times or not, there are still some outstanding reasons to take the route of the traditional book publishing. One is that there are, after all, still a lot of open bookstores out there. And I am confident that big bookstore chains like Barnes and Noble are vigorously buttressing themselves against the onslaught of challenges to their retail model now being leveled at them by the rise of the e-book.

Right? Wouldn’t you think Barnes and Noble would be on their game right now?

Well, they are. But only if their game is Battleship Down.

Yesterday I visited my local gymnasium-size Barnes and Noble. And, as is my wont, I wonderingly and non-wantonly wandered over to the Christian book section, so that I could see what’s happening with all my Christian book author buds who also never call me but whatever.

And there I saw that on the shelf next to one copy each or Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis and Sex God were no copies of Rob’s mega-bestselling smash sensation book Love Wins.

Huh? How could they not have Love Wins on the shelf?

Rob Bell’s my best friend. We go back weeks. And friends take care of friends. So off I went to the big round info desk situated in the middle of the store like the bridge deck for the Barnes and Noble Enterprise.

Employees buzzed around back there like bees in a hive. But despite first impressions they didn’t seem to actually be worker bees, since they almost determinedly refrained from directly assisting we few who were trying to access the sweet deliciousness of their books.

Finally one of them waved me over to a computer. What luck! She was a queen bee: she had strapped to her head the Madonna/helicopter pilot headset, and clipped to her belt was a squawking walkie-talkie that would have been the pride of any socially maladjusted, authority-crazed mall cop.

“Can I help you?” she said.

Having heard what I was looking for, she typed away for a moment before pausing. She repeated the ol’ type-pause-type cycle a few times, before looking up to ask me, “What was the title again?”

Love Wins. By Rob Bell.”

That’s the whole title? Love Wins?”

I had a fleeting idea that maybe she really worked at the Starbucks next door, and just happened to wander behind the counter in search of a novelty key chain or $6.99 blank book.

“Yes, Love Wins. By Rob Bell.” I made sure to tamper down the mania that I could feel rising in me like a werewolf during full moon. “It’s one of the bestselling books in the country.”

“Oh, I know. I’ve heard of it.” She peered into her screen like it was showing the answer to life in print too small to read.

“Jay Bell, right?”

“No, Rob Bell. Love Wins, by Rob Bell.” Always attuned to the possibility of in fairly short order getting arrested, I practically whispered, “It’s been one of the bestselling books in the country for about two months. It was on the cover of Time.”

“Oh, I know about the book,” she said. She stared back into her computer. “What was it again? Bell?”

I wondered if perhaps this was all an elaborate prank. Maybe I was being punked, or was an unwitting guest on some new reality TV-show called, like, Try to Buy a Book! or Employee or Not?

“Yes, it’s Bell. Rob Bell.” The beard stubble under my jawbone needed scratching.

After long enough for me to write my own book, she said, “Ah. There it is. I’m showing here that we’ve got lots of copies.” She looked proud to have proven herself the efficient, competent, take-charge sort of employee that I could only guess she’d somehow deluded herself she was.

“Great to know!” said I.

“They’re on a space on one of our display tables.” She briskly headed out onto the floor, taking as she went a call from an in-store underling whom I imagined in the men’s bathroom with his head stuck behind the toilet, or maybe in some far corner of the store, stepping in place, unaware that the key to his freedom lie in simply turning around.

My guide stopped at one amongst a sea of identical round display tables packed with books. “Here we are,” she said. She pointed downward to five or six stacked copies of Love Wins. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“No, this is great. Thank you.” After she’d started away, I said, “Excuse me.” She turned back, regarding me with an expression that said, “Isn’t it awesome how my cute looks and professional manner keep you from seeing how much you’re interfering with my work schedule?”

“Yes?” she said, walking back toward me.

“Could you — I mean, I’d be happy to do it myself — put a couple of these on the shelf in the Christian book section, next to his other books?”

She managed to look at once perplexed and blank. “But they go here on this table.”

“And they look great here! But I was thinking that maybe one or two copies should also go on the shelf. That’s where people would look for them, isn’t it? Under B? For Bell? Where you have copies of his other two books?”

“But these books are supposed to be here,” she said. “This is where we go to find them.” My chest began itching.

“But that works great for you, because you’re an employee here. So you know they’re here. But for someone like me, who’s not an employee, I wouldn’t know to look out here. I’m just someone off the street who wants to buy a copy of this book for my wife. So what I’m going to do, is look for the book on the shelves. And if I don’t see any of them there, then I’ll probably figure you’re out of that book, and then maybe just leave. And that’s no good, right? Because then maybe you’ll miss out on that sale?”

After carefully cogitating upon the variables in my complex scenario I was suggesting, she cocked one hip, and said, “You know, you do kind of have a point there.”

“So should I go ahead and put at least one of these copies on the shelf?”

“Tell you what. Why don’t you let me take that up with the district manager? Because we really should have a book over there, right?”

“Right,” I said. “Definitely.”

“I’m going to suggest it. It’s a good idea. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

I thanked her and said no, I was fine. And then she turned away, off to not solve some other problem.

I hung around the store a bit — and then, unobserved, sneaked two copies of Rob’s books onto the shelf where they belonged.

Later that afternoon I bought a copy of Love Wins. It’s now on my wife’s Kindle.

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  • ALin

    I called up the B&N near me to ask if they had it, and they told me they did. But just like you, I didn’t see them with the rest of his books! They were on the durn display table with other Xn drivel. The book should be with a better group. Or on a table all its own.

  • leanne mcginney

    Good one, John! It’s called the death of common sense.

  • Megan Turner

    I’ve had similar experiences at Barnes & Noble. I now refuse to shop there.

  • Mike Scolare

    At least your B&N had some. Mine, here in Upper Con Queso country, has none. Not even on a display table.

  • denver

    I once was in a Borders looking for a copy of a friend’s book that I knew they had because I had called ahead. I looked in every possible section I could think they might have shelved it under and… nothing. So I went to the circulation desk, and… it was in Mystery. It was in no way, shape, or form, a mystery book. I told them so. I pointed out the helpful things on the back of nearly every paperback book that lists suggested sections that the book could be filed under. They said… oh. Thanks. And we know what happened to Borders. >.<

  • This happens all the time. The problem is that the orders for where books get displayed come down from corporate – there have been several times when I’ve gone in looking for a book, and it’s over on a different shelf because it’s on “special display” that week. And the poor girl’s hands are probably tied by the management in this sort of situation.

    When I worked in retail (at the now defunct Hollywood Video), there were certain movies that we HAD to have on display in certain areas of the store. “X” movie had to be in “y” place, filling “z” number of shelves. Corporate occasionally sent secret shoppers out to stores to make sure that we were following those sorts of silly rules.

    It’s because if something’s on special display in the aisles or whatever, people are much more likely to notice it. I, for one, take the time when I’m in B&N to peruse a bunch of the tables to see what they’re recommending for “summer reading” or 2 for 1 classics or whatever, so, actually, they’re probably selling more (overall) by having the books out on display because of browsers finding it and deciding to buy it.

    It’s only really a problem when someone comes in looking for that specific work, in which case they’ll usually do what you did, and find an employee.

  • melissa

    Customer Service: The act of a customer serving themselves.

  • melissa

    Unfortunately, not everyone who enters a book store does so with a bunch of extra time to browse. If they cannot stock the book in both places, they are not serving all of their customers. I personally do not care what they suggest that I read, and I rarely find best sellers among the best books, therefore, I don’t waste my time at those tables. Now, if his book was on the sales table…that would be a different story…

    It is a mistake to think that we can all fall for marketing like that. Then again, most serious readers cannot afford Barnes and Noble, and those that go in there are probably treating it like a library-with-a-new-book-smell on their day off. Come to think of it, that is the only time I go in there.

  • I have taken to either ordering books online, or going to the small private bookstore downtown. If they don’t have it, they can usually have a copy for me within a few days.

    I hate the big bookstores for the very reasons John stated. Finding a book you want is near impossible, There seems to be no rhyme or reason for all those extra tables and displays, and forget asking for someone to look it up. Tried that once with no success.

  • I’m not sure if people generally know this or not, but the books on display on the tables in the big chain stores aren’t anyone’s “recommended reading.” Those spots are paid for by the books’ publishers. Each one of those is a rented spot.

  • I just think it’s kind of a ridiculous thing to complain about. It’s common practice, and blaming the employee for following corporate guidelines is rather petty. If you don’t have the time to browse, why not just ask an employee right away?

    And frankly, I don’t understand the rest of your post: What does people treating it as a library have to do with how they place books to sell? They are a business. They place things in a way that will promote sales. And by placing books on special tables (regardless of how counter-intuitive it may seem to the consumer who is seeking a particular item), they sell more of them. Is it not catering to a minority of folks who set up their home libraries in a logical fashion? Of course. But those aren’t the people they want to attract.

    I think the point people are missing here is that it’s a business. And as a business, they will set up the store in a way that SELLS THINGS, not in a way that’s catering to every little complaint. Believe me, when I was in retail, I hated having to pull movies from the library and put them in the special end caps and displays around the store. It was counter-intuitive to me and made reshelving returned movies a hassle. But we did rent more of them – our Christmas displays caused us to run out of those movies more frequently, even though they were placed in a manner that was counter-intuitive to some consumers. It’s just how the business works!

  • I apologize if this comes across as rude, but if it’s the publisher’s decision, then why are you complaining about B&N? It’s shooting the messenger, so to speak.

  • Walmart has neglected to carry it at all, either in their religious section, or best seller section (though they did deign to carry The Shack). I guess Rob Bell was a bridge too far . . .

  • Wow. Proof that no matter what you write, you’ll piss off someone.

  • Very well said, Lynelle.

  • Wow, SD. Sounds like you’ve had superbad retail book experiences. Bummer!

  • I worked in retail bookstores for … gosh, seven years. Most customers do come in looking for a specific title. Or at least they have a couple in mind they’d like to look at.

  • Yes. It’s all about the “category” of any given book. That’s what those signs atop the shelves in big bookstores really are: you’re supposed to match the “category” on the book’s spine or ISBN box with the category on shelf sign. A HUGE reason no one wanted to publish my first book, “Penguins,” was because no one could figure out which category it belonged in. Fiction? Non-fiction? Humor? Religion? They gave up.

  • Yikes.

  • Shane

    I enjoyed this post. But in the end, i gotta say I agreed with some of the folks here defending B&N and the associate. Sure, they ought to hold back a few copies for their shelves. Totally makes sense. But they’re always going to be thinking “where will this best sell?” I was at a Border’s last week, looking for Bradbury’s Farenheit 451. Thought I’d find it in literature under his name. With the rest of his books. Turns out, they’d put it under Sci Fi/Fantasy. Not maybe where I’d have put it. But they’re thinking about how things sell best. Used to be memoir was distributed with Fiction by author title. Being a big memoir reader I just hated that. Then, voila – someone put together a ‘biography’ section that included both memoir, biography, and auto-biography.

    Retailing’s a tough business. I worked in it for 5 years. And businesses, like people, are prone to a lot of course correction along the way. Someday, they’ll get a few complaints, someone will hear it, and they’ll change policy to put a few copies of Bell’s book back on the shelf, and Bradbury’s book in Fiction AND Sci-Fi, But in the mean time, I think they’re doing what they can and that associate’s pretty much programmed to follow protocol and we shoudln’t get our panties all in a bunch over it.

  • Liza

    How weird, I think they must be smoking something at your B&N. My local B&N has a hole stack of those books and, wait for it, in the Christian book section. I’ll be reading it soon on my nook.

  • Liza

    My experiences with B&N have been good ones. I’ve never had trouble either finding what I want or having them order for me. Unlike Borders where the poor soul there seemed confused by the very thought that I was there looking for a book. Retail of any sort is tough business, especially now when the tradition business models are changing.

  • Susan G.

    “Upper Con Queso country?” OK, not really ROFL, but definitely snickering.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    Wow, you have certainly been on top of your writing game lately, John!

  • I had the same experience at the B&N store in Annapolis, MD. I found Velvet, Sex, etc… but no sign whatsoever! of Love Wins. Weird. I said to my bride, “They must be sold out.” She said, “Let’s ask.” Sure enough, they led me to a shelf in the store I have never been to before and voila — Love Wins Galore.

    They don’t know how to target a market very well. The family friendly Christian store doesn’t carry it. I guess they think it is a mainstream book?? At this point, they’ve missed the rush (and cost Bell and his publisher plenty, no doubt). You’d think someone in their marketing department would get a subscription to Time. Or an internet account. or a clue…

  • Actually, I think it is the messenger who is attempting/committing financial suicide and John is desperately trying to talk them out of it… but alas, they won’t hear such of such nonsense. Put the book where the target market will find readily it? Coast to coast?! pffft!

  • Heather

    Yeah, I went into a B&N a couple of weeks ago to look for a new release, and couldn’t find it on the shelves or on the the five or so new release sections. So I asked someone (it took 10 minutes to get service at their information desk), and had the nice young lady go into the back to get me one. The book had been out for a week already, and they were going to feature it up front, but since the upfront space wasn’t available yet, they put all the copies into the back. All of them. Not even a couple on the shelf next to her other books. Nope, it’s either special feature or stored in the back.

    Complete and utter RETAIL FAIL. Never going back there again.

  • Laura

    I’m confused about the statement that serious readers can’t afford Barnes and Noble. The books at B&N are at publisher determined prices, just like every other bookstore. When they have the chance to order a bunch, they get discounts, thus why bestsellers and other large volume books are discounted. It’s that way at pretty much every bookstore that sells new books. I work at a privately owned bookstore, and I worked at B&N. While B&N has a lot of problems, pricing isn’t one of them, in my opinion.

    The only places that can retail all/most new books at less than publisher prices are places like Wal Mart. They can do that because they have other items that they make a huge profit on, like entertainment equipment. Since bookstores sell books, they can’t afford to sell all their merchandise for significantly less than they paid for it. Wal Mart can also buy huge amounts of just best selling books and keep them in backstock. Bookstores carry single copies of many more titles, so they tend to order only one copy at a time. Thus, they don’t get the discount other retailers might.

    Of course, this is only discussion centered around new books, excluding used and libraries. Serious readers probably don’t shop at places that heavily discount their books because those places have less of a selection and tend to carry things of little substance.

  • Laura

    The B&N where I worked had a rule of always having one in the section. It was drilled into our heads. That’s how I found this. One of my old coworkers posted it on Facebook with a comment to that effect.

  • Josh

    Until recently, I worked at a Christian bookstore and I can assure you, your bookstore didn’t miss the book. They intentionally chose not to carry it because the book is heresy. It is a gross misuse of scripture which attempts to break down the gospel and nullify the importance of what Christ did at the cross. It makes me happy to hear that it is getting poor merchandising placement in the stores because, while I don’t fear its effects upon someone who has read and understands scripture, I am afraid of the eternal detriment that it has the ability to cause toward the unsaved and new believers.

  • Scott

    Hey, John! The crazy has arrived!

  • Liza

    Wow, and first thing in the morning too! Glad I stopped off to fortify myself at my local Starbucks.

  • Liza

    What was I smoking last night? I meant to say “whole stack of books.” That is what I get by trying to type on a teeny tiny keyboard!

  • Ken Fitzer

    Customer Disservice: We’re not happy until you’re not happy.

  • Anyone interested in this topic (the book, not barnes and noble) should read this book by Julie Ferwerda:

  • Erica G

    “eternal detriment”! Wow that’s a new one! Everyone, try to use that at least once today. Preferably when describing/speaking at/predicting the fate of someone of differing faith!

  • Christy

    Dear Josh,

    Barnes and Noble: Largest brick and mortar book retailer in the country. Not affiliated with any church, mosque, temple, synagogue, faith, creed, doctrine, or denomination other than Capitalism.

    I don’t recall where Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are happy to hear of the misfortune of those with whom they disagree”. Radio show windbags might wish for people to fail; Jesus did not.

    Free speech. Free reading. Free thinking. Free believing. Free experience of the Divine. Jesus set us free with the truth. Stop trying to limit and control anyone else’s understanding of it.

    PS: There’s a lovely little addition that ameliorates strong opinion and broad sweeping assertions – IMHO. It is pleasantly welcomed in mixed company.

    Hope you have a great day…..and best of luck when DR reads your post.

  • Deborah S Prater

    I live in a remote town in Tennessee. The Wal-Mart located in the slightly larger town about 25 minutes away has carried “Love Wins” since it’s release. The book is not always in stock, it sells out pretty quickly since they don’t carry massive quantities. Wal-Mart also carries the book online.

    I purchased “Love Wins” at Barnes & Noble and like John, had to ask for assistance in order to find it. Not a single copy in the Christian section but 3 on a table in the center of an isle. The employee who lead me to the table stated they couldn’t keep it in stock, it flew off the table as fast as they could restock. She inquired as to what all the fuss was about, I did my best to explain briefly. She was actually very attentive and cordial, something I appreciate tremendously, especially when I’m a consumer who intends to purchase, not just browse.

    I suppose I should consider myself very fortunate, I’ve rarely had a bad experience at a bookstore which keeps me going back for more.

    I enjoy your writing immensely John.

  • Christy

    PPS: You said, “I am afraid of the eternal detriment”

    Jesus and scripture said 365 times to “fear not.” It’s wonderful life-giving advice. Those who choose to live in fear miss out living in love.

  • Christy


  • Christy

    One more thing: What if we referred to ourselves as “followers of Christ” rather than “believers” and how would that change our Christian talk as well as our walk?

  • Loren Haas

    We don’t have a B&N near Napa where I live. Guess what? The nearby “Christian” bookstores do not even carry “Love Wins”. “Velvet Elvis” sure, but no “Love Wins”. Same is true for the online Christian book sellers. Love to hear what you can tell us about that sad situation John.

  • Sounds to me like the publisher paid for front of store space in B&N and they were honoring this payment plan even though as you pointed out, it made no sense for those actually looking for the book.

    I would be shocked to find a “Christian” book store carrying any book by Harper One, Jossey Bass or any more mainline/secular religious publisher. When I was in Oregon, I participated in Christian Bookstore Day (yes, it was akin to Dante’s hell), I was given a copy of the bestselling book at one of the stores. It was so horrid, I couldn’t read it–so I tried to sell it at Powell’s (the largest independent bookstore in the US). They rejected it on the grounds they had one copy there that had been sitting there gathering dust for months. That proved my point that one can be a best selling author in evangelical circles and seen as poison in more secular bookstores. Later, I want to the Strand (the largest used bookstore in NYC) and tried to sell a book by a major Xn publisher – they said they don’t carry any books by those kind of folks. And this store has a pretty good religion section.

  • Ha! I had the same experience with my book, my honest to goodness Simon & Schuster title “Mark Kistler’s Web Wizards,” (I wrote, he illustrated). It was a book for middle school kids about how to make your own web pages with a text editor (mind you, this was published in 1999).

    Barnes & Noble shelved it in a section called something like “Family Life,” with the books about how to raise autistic children. When I suggested that they put it in the children’s activity section, or with computer books, they got this smug expression like I had no idea what I was talking about. Of course, they were powerless to move a book from one shelf to another.

    Kepler’s books, my heroes, a large store but not part of a massive chain, very kindly featured my book in a display of summer fun books, and at that store it sold well. I often wonder what might have happened if B&N had done the same.

  • and that Josh is exactly why I don’t visit Christian book stores. Not enough variety of subject matter or views.

  • DR

    Dear Josh,

    I’d recommend staying at your Christian bookstore – who’s going to make sure that none of the Catholic materials make it in? I’m sure Sarah Palin’s “Going Rogue” will do nicely though.

    Let us know when you get another job where you’re going to be forced to deal with Christians like me who don’t share your views, who won’t tolerate your drive-by hostility and you speaking for Christianity as a whole. I’ll confess – I’d love to see you encounter an atheist who is a great person and see your self-constructed narrative unravel. Maybe you’ll learn the humility needed to enter into a conversation like this one with some maturity (or at very least, some manners).

  • Nora

    Bookstores, especially the chain megastores, are a hot mess right now. As much as I prefer traditionally bound books for everyday reading and ebooks for travel, I’m using my Kindle more and more (not that Kindle and Amazon are without issues, either). It’s just easier. I know what I want and I get it immediately.

    Bookstores did this to themselves, however. If you look at the successful, independent bookstores, they have smart, informed, enthusiastic staff, they know who their customers are, and they arrange to have wonderful speaking and signing events that benefit everyone — the store, the author and the reader. The chain bookstores tried to be a little bit of everything to everyone and ended up being nothing.

    BTW, you might look into Amazon’s new e-publishing imprints. So far, I think they’ve only announced their romance and thriller/suspense imprints, but I suspect more will follow. It’s not just self-pubbing and uploading to their platform — they’ve hired serious editors/marketing people and already have some big name authors on board.

  • tana


    As always thank you for sharing your funny, witty story. That employee, whether she knew it or not, is a holon (just read that in Wilber’s book and now I have to use it constantly so as to drive people batshit crazy) – she has a role to play in where the books are located whether she’s an uuber-powerful decision maker or not. All she had to do was 1. act like she was truly invested in helping you by actually listening to you and 2. tell you she would definitely pass that recommendation on up as it did make total sense.

    Also? How about not saying, “Yes, I’m familiar with the book,” and then asking for the title and/or author’s name three more times?

  • tana

    And all brick and mortar bookstores have lost my business because of my Kindle and Asking for help in a B&M B&N is like asking for help at a Home Depot. That is to say, you just have to figure it out yourself because if any of the employees actually deign to see you, listen to you and help you, they still won’t know what you’re talking about/looking for and you’ll just have to help yourself anyway.

  • I used to love bookstores. In the BC years I probably spent about 10% of my income on books (and sushi too), now I’ve whittled myself down to two or three new reads a month. I usually order them from Amazon or download them to the Kindle app on my droid.

    I still love used bookstores and little corner stores, just a few weeks ago I found some great old books on psychology and dystopian society in a little bookstore in Half Moon Bay. My most favorite bookstore ever, though, remains Powell’s in Portland OR. They have an online presence and an enormous floor space, but they carry new, used and even rare books, have a lovely little coffee shop, and manage to waylay me for hours at a time everytime I go through Portland and decide to stop. Powell’s can easily lighten my wallet by a couple hundred bucks, so I have sadly abstained from visiting them for quite some time.

    B&N have been missing the mark by miles for quite a long time now by focusing on marketing & making publishers happy rather than by serving their customers. The children’s section is more like a toy store now, and even in the front of the store they sell nearly twice as many knick-knacks and dustcatchers as they do actual books. Its redonkulous.

  • KenLeonard

    I had a similar experience looking for books in the Artemis Fowl series. But the employee couldn’t find them, either. He assured me that they were on a table. He just wasn’t sure which one, and since it wasn’t one of the first three we checked, I was supposed to wander the store on my own.

    I was reminded of why I love my library.

  • lizatraveler

    “B&N have been missing the mark by miles for quite a long time now by focusing on marketing & making publishers happy rather than by serving their customers.”

    Couldn’t agree with you more, Barnhaven. When I worked at Barnes and Noble, the high point of my day was interacting with customers to educate them on a specific title, suggest similar books to something they already knew the liked, or just stand around and talk shop. I have a lit degree, and was one of my store’s top sellers, along with a couple of other employees who were avid readers, had their Masters in Library Science, or were published authors themselves.

    None of us work there anymore. My boss was a pushy, verbally abusive man who used to run a grocery store but was recruited at the delight of my district manager because of his potential for driving up numbers. His favorite story to tell the employees was how he once threw a large can of pineapple at a shoplifter at his old job, splitting the man’s head open. He used to openly mock readers, and laugh at the idea of personally reading a book. The junior managers, into whose ranks I was initially hoping to be promoted, used to weep and tell me that they hated their lives. Then most of them quit too. Instead of interviewing to move up, I visited a recruiter and am now a Naval Flight Officer.

    I spend a good portion of my much larger paycheck stocking my Nook and visiting Barnes and Noble, where I retain my membership. I get all my own books off the shelf when I go, and the last time I visited, sold a book to an employee.

  • LVZ

    Dear John and fellow readers,

    As someone who used to work at a bookstore, I apologize on behalf of everyone who works in one.

    There are two kinds of people who work in bookstores. First, there are the people who love books, love reading, and make a career out of helping people find the books they want to read that will expand their horizons.

    Second, there are the people who are out of work and will take anything that will pay the rent. Some of them will become experts in authors and books. Some of them will grow the passion the people from the first group had when they were hired. But for others, books just aren’t their calling. Their hearts aren’t in it.

    I spend time each day studying the Bible, so I don’t have a lot of time to read other Christian books. I can’t say I’d heard of Rob Bell before he was mentioned in this blog. But if I were still working in a bookstore, I would have known exactly where the book was and guided you straight to it. There are many bookstore workers who could have done that, too. I’m sorry you got one of the inept ones.

  • This is crazy. But I think it’s common.

    I recently went to Barnes and Noble for the pleasure of seeing my own book on the shelf. I approached the round desk, just as you did. The snippy older woman I talked to refused to tell me where the Christian youth fiction section was and demanded I tell her the title of the book instead. I really wanted to see if I could find the book myself, but she did not allow me even to try. So I told her the title is In Front of God and Everybody by K. D. McCrite.(And I spelled my last name because I have to do that for everyone.) She argued with me about how to spell it. Finally I blurted out, “I’m the author of that book and I just want to see if I can find it on the shelf. If I were someone who came in here to buy it, how in the world could I find it?” She looked puzzled and lost, and after a bit I left her to her ruminations, found the Christian section on my own, still could not find the book. Another clerk, this one very helpful, very kind, found the books, misshelved in another section of the store. But she was so thrilled that I was there, she asked me to autograph all the copies, and said they were going to attach “Signed by the Author” stickers on them, and display the books where people could find them.

    Then I went into Lifeway bookstore. Went through the same thing, except neither clerks nor me could find In Front of God and Everybody. The computer confirmed it was on the shelf. Hmm. I told them if they could find the books, I’d be happy to autograph a few copies as I had done elsewhere. The manager glares and screeches at me “”NO! You can’t sign those books. What if I have to return them!” Gee, thanks.

    Worst of all, though, is my local library, where I worked for many years and to whom I donated a copy, signed and everything several weeks ago. They haven’t even bothered to put it out for anyone to read yet.

    Bookstores and librarians. I think they don’t like authors.

  • DR

    You seem lovely and I’m sure the bad service that’s out there is an exception to the rule! I love books too, what a great job for a fellow book-lover. 🙂

  • WOW! Unbelievable! (That’s a trick a wizened veteran author once told me: Go into a bookstore, and offer to autograph your books off their shelves. They’ll probably get all excited and let you do that–AND THEN THEY CAN’T RETURN THEM! I was with this author when he did that in about five different stores. He’d walk out, and go, “Well, there’s four more books sold.” Kind of awesome.)

  • Beautifully well said. And it’s just as you say. When I first started working in bookstores, in San Francisco, in 1981, being a bookstore clerk was still considered a pretty rarefied thing. Pretty much everyone I worked with had at least a B.A. in literature: they were all intellectuals and hardcore book people. It was a status thing, to say you worked at one of the large independent bookstores. It was a career, really, then, not just a job. I was mad for it, because I was a book freak.

  • Yikes. YIKES. What the heck is going ON out there? That’s so amazingly lame.

  • Barmaven: Awesome comment.

  • Liza: WOW. I can’t believe the quality of this comment. All of them here have just been amazing. I didn’t know so many people has so many excllent/deep/rich bookstore experiences.

  • I KNOW! She kept saying she knew the book, but then … not so much with the knowing. It was weird.

  • So I just want to say I’ve read all of these AMAZINGLY good comments. Spectacular. Everybody has such INTERESTING things to say about books and bookstores. Who knew? It kills me that I don’t have time to respond to each one of these. But I’ve definitely read them. I have REALLY enjoyed them. Haven’t you all?

  • textjunkie

    Huh!! My hubby and I haven’t shopped at B&N for a decade or more, because Borders in our experience were always larger, better stocked, had a larger coffee shop, and were cheaper than B&N. But I have to admit, when I am looking for a specific title, I never go to where I think it will be. I go straight to the computer interface and look it up there. I’ve learned that titles are *never* where I think they will be, and even from one store to the other the same book can be filed differently. It’s only when the book isn’t where the computer says it is that I go looking for a human. 😉

    But seriously, don’t you have that experience in every retail store? Some stores have salespeople who really know there stuff, and some don’t. We have a local liquor store and the guys who work there know their beer and cider like nobody’s business, but details on wine and liqueurs are sketchy at best. At the grocery store, some employees know exactly were stuff is and will take you to it, and others have to find somebody higher up the food chain… (Though I’ll grant you, your experience at B&N is a BIT over the top…)

    My favorite endcap I saw one time was a bunch of Newt Gingrich’s books being touted, along with a book called “The care and feeding of newts”, right in the middle. Gave me hope for the book industry. 🙂

  • Diana A.

    Love your last paragraph!

  • Exactly! I have a college friend just like that. And we graduated in the early 80s and she LOVED her job at a bookstore.

    But now, it seems like a job anyone could get. A mall job. Which is why it’s so exciting to go to a Barnes & Noble and talk to someone who loves the job, knows what they are doing, is glad to help and is totally on top of things!

    Loved your quote here, BTW…

    “Rob Bell’s my best friend. We go back weeks.” ~it was adorably cute!

    And your other one here…

    “She was a queen bee: she had strapped to her head the Madonna/helicopter pilot headset, and clipped to her belt was a squawking walkie-talkie that would have been the pride of any socially maladjusted, authority-crazed mall cop.”

    You packed SO much into this sentence! LOVE it!!

    And I love that you snuck the books onto the shelf where they belong.

  • Susan in NY


    I like bookstores, but more importantly, your “contact me” thingy is not working, as far as I can tell.


  • Thanks for alert. I’ve fixed it.

  • I love my kindle, but not everything is on Kindle. But I order from Amazon or the publisher directly because the joy of the bookstore is extinct. Browsing used to be one of my favorite things, and it seemed I always ran into an employee who was reading the most amazing stuff, and oozed love of books and bookstores. But I know John’s experience is becoming the norm. The chains have nearly killed off the species.

  • Winnie Sykora

    I have worked for Barnes & Noble for almost 10 years. Our booksellers do not wear headsets. Our customer service desks are square, not round. We also have our own ereader, the Nook. Mr. Shore, you were inside a Borders bookstore.

  • Oh! Right. Because I don’t know the difference between the Barnes and Noble I’ve been visiting for six years, and Borders. Whew. Good thing you cleared that up for me.

  • Winnie Sykora

    It happens! We’ve had customers write out checks to “Borders.”

  • Yeah, yeah: I COULD see myself doing that, of course. But … you know: I’m not going to spend six hours (or whatever) writing a whole THING about my experience there, and actually get the STORE wrong. That would be … ultra-sad.

  • Chelsea

    Barnes & Noble doesn’t have a “Christian youth fiction” section. That’s probably why the bookseller wanted to look the book up for you instead of trying to explain that.

  • Chelsea

    I’d like to know which store you visited, because if you actually WERE in a B&N where the employees wore headsets and walkie talkies, I’m sure corporate would like to know because no store is supposed to use them.

  • Krista

    It’s because of people like you, Mr. Shore, that customer service industry is the way it is. I’ve had people ask me where the nonfiction is and then look completely stumped when I ask what specifically they are looking for. I’ve had people still ask me “Oh up there?” pointing to the second floor after I’ve also pointed and said, “Upstairs on that table.” we’ve had people try to go up the down escalator. I had a 17 year old kid ask me where Stephen king books are because he was POSITIVE it was nonfiction. I’ve had people ask me where a book is when it’s sitting on the counter in between us-one woman even knocked the book over with her hand while asking me for that book. If there were no customer service, NOTHING would get done-food wouldn’t be cooked for you, clothing stores wouldn’t exist, and bookstores would be non-existent. Might I suggest everyone try it for a year, much in the same way Israeli citizens are required to join the military. Then get back to us and you, what was it again? Your blog? Adorable, you have a blog.

  • Jo

    Pics or it didn’t happen. Internet calls you out – post pics of this B&N with headsets and a round Info desk.

    Money —> mouth —> etc.

  • Jo

    Exactly. There’s the Juv Religion section, but that’s not even broken down by different religion. In my store, it’s mostly Jewish kids books, and My First Bibles, actually.

  • Jo


    “I personally like this book so it should be somewhere special!”

    Brilliant marketing strategy there, I can definitely see the merits of your theory. I’m going to march into my local bookstore and tell them that all about how I personally love ‘The Joy of Lesbian Sex’ and think it should have its own table, right there in the front of the store!

  • Might I suggest everyone try it for a year …

    I (who work in customer service) say that to myself every day, but most especially when a customer can’t figure out just why we don’t have the entire vitamin/mineral/herb department alphabetized for their shopping ease.

  • Krista: Wow. Bitter much? You should probably for sure right away get out of customer service. (And I worked in bookstores for about 7 years.)

  • Pfft. Vitamins on the shelf in alphabetical order. How stupid is THAT? Of course they should be arranged by color of label.

  • by focusing on marketing & making publishers …

    I was a shift manager at my local B&N for a couple of months. The main thing that I hated about working there (and what ultimately drove my decision to quit) was their focus on marketing over customer service.

    I spent more time rearranging tables and end cap displays then I did helping people. It was expected – no it was demanded – that you would get your assignment done, and if not there would be hell to pay. Not completing the stupid marketing stuff would mean you were out of a job.

    So I very often wore that smile that John talked about in his post a lot. That – “Isn’t it awesome how my cute looks and professional manner keep you from seeing how much you’re interfering with my work schedule?” – smile.

    I hated it.

    It’s been years since I worked at B&N, but if it is similar to what it was 10 years ago, it is not a fun place to work.

  • It really isn’t that easy.

    It’s not just the vitamins the customers are expecting to be alphabetized (which are, within their sections). It’s the whole department they think should be alphabetized. Thousands of products. It would actually be quite chaotic and make no sense.

    On another topic – I was trying to find a “subscribe to comments” button and could not find one. 🙂

  • DR

    Hate to break it to you Kristen but the majority of jobs people have include some level of customer service. And I think a lot of us have had the misfortune of having you as a co-worker (which generally drives us to getting different jobs, so thanks for being so insufferable).

  • e2c

    Here’s the million-dollar question: did you work in a ginormous chain store affiliate, or did you work in a mom-and-pop (or otherwise independent) bookstore?

    Those B&N stores cover a lot of floor space, and it sounds to me like you might have been talking to some relatively new employees. I like your sense of humor, but hey – in this case, I’m not so sure I like the post.

    (Everyone who says that B&N employees don’t wear headsets and/or carry walkie-talkies is right… )

    And the Lord knows, B&N has some especially illogical (to me) sales and marketing campaigns – things that can send you all over the floor chasing down copies of the same book. (I have never worked for them, or Borders, but it’s hard to miss a lot of these things after my own years in the bookstore world…)

  • DR

    The rabid employee base on Barnes & Noble challenging others so aggressively here creeps me out about the chain more than the original post itself.

  • e2c

    Not really – it’s almost impossible to sell signed copies of books, unless collectors are buying, or else the author is famous and the book is a best-seller. I have seen this kind of thing happen, and the stores take a hit when someone does this.

    It really is unfair to stick it to a store in this way – if your book isn’t selling, it’s *not* the fault of the retailer. If I saw an author doing this, I would ask them not to.

  • e2c


  • e2c

    the marketing campaigns that I mentioned above, where books are put on tables *all over* the B&N stores. It can be awfully hard to locate a copy of a book that’s part of the current sales campaign for that reason alone.

    I guess your comments above answered my question about your never having worked in a ginormous chain bookstore… 😉

  • e2c

    I don’t think you did. the big chains are an entirely different world when compared to independent bookstores, and most folks don’t know about all the marketing (etc. etc. etc.) that’s intrinsic to chain bookstores – B&N especially, imo.

  • redfblued

    When you call the bookstore to see if they have a book, and when they say that they do, ask them to HOLD it for you so you don’t have to freak out on the person that has to deal with others like you all day every day every time they have to clock in…then guess what? You don’t have to go running around the whole store looking for the book and getting more and more angry at something you could have AVOIDED!

  • Right. Because I never just drop into a bookstore. Good plan. (And who said anything about “freaking out”?) And by “others like you,” do you mean others who expect to find at least one copy of one of the bestselling books in the country on the shelf where books are placed alphabetically according to the authors’ last names, right next to the OTHER books by that author? Are those the kind of unreasonable customers you mean?

  • Alex

    John, you are correct that titles should be shelved in the section despite what special promotion is current for a title. I have worked for BN for 9 years and this is in fact standard procedure. Some stores may keep that in force better than others. So your point is well taken.

    Sticking to your guns on what store you were in, however, does take away credibility from your post in this case. It should not matter what mega-chain bookstore you were in to make your point valid, but you do come down pretty hard on BN and it is very questionable with the descriptions you give (round info counters, booksellers with headset/mics and a chain with no e-reader) that it was a BN. Borders, in fact, has tanked because of not following the times of digital publishing, but BN is in the thick of the e-reader business with 4 different models of the nook being introduced since the Autumn of 2009, the latest having just been rated by Consumer Reports as the best e-reader available.

    Additionally, the service you received from one bookseller of approximately 40,000 and extrapolating from that one encounter to the conclusions you and others in these comments have is a little dubious at best. There will always be booksellers who give good service and not. And that could be the same person, on a different day, at a different time, after having been yelled at or profusely thanked by the prior customer or any myriad of circumstances in that person’s current moment just as you approach. We are human. And I expect you are as well.