The ever-alert Boston Business Journal reports that Barbara’s Bestsellers has closed but might get a new lease on life – literally – in a smaller space in another part of the station. The 417 square foot book stall appears to have gone to the dark (roast) side for five times the rent paid by the bookseller.
A commercial real estate source familiar with the deal said Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX) is planning to open in the former book stall space at about $500 per square foot. Barliant was paying about $100 per square foot or $4,000 a month, not including maintenance, real estate taxes and marketing, on a lease that was signed many years ago. The store had been at South Station since 1994.
You’re probably thinking that I’m going to deliver a teary eulogy for a dearly-departed brick and mortar bookseller, as I have done for a stationery store. Well, yes, I will miss it in a nostalgic kind of way, but the truth is that I haven’t browsed or even been tempted to buy anything there for years. My reasons for not patronizing the South Station book stall are probably not so unusual and will furnish some clues to why Barbara’s can’t or won’t pay as much rent as Starbucks seems to.
The bookstores of the 1990s called, they want their business model back.
I think the book market has simply passed shops like this by. Barbara’s had pretty much one thing going for it: location. Location in a place where people are waiting around before being stuck in a metal tube for a while is pretty sweet – until everybody has a bookstore in their pocket and can download ebooks in seconds. This was not a discount bookstore, it wasn’t an antiquarian bookstore, it didn’t have a nice cafe or a friendly bookstore cat or comfy seating to make it a nice retreat from the bustle of the train station (sadly, the whole of South Station has neither a nice cafe nor comfy seating), it didn’t offer author events like readings or book signings. The busy business traveler waiting for the Acela to New York is most likely packing a smartphone, tablet, e-reader or laptop computer, if not all four, and despite the crappy wifi in South Station proper, these travelers are probably hooked up to the mobile network and they know there will be free wifi on the train, too. By and large, they just don’t want paper books anymore.
Just as all the traditional comforts of a bookstore are absent in a kiosk in a train station, all the traditional comforts are reading are nullified by having to read on the train. It turns out that poor lighting and crowded or cramped conditions make reading on a device a better choice than a paper book on many trains.
Know when to hold em, know when to fold em
A business closing is generally a sad thing, but I’d rather that this one realizes that times and preferences have changed and either closes down or changes. It appears that they’ll reopen in a smaller and less well-located kiosk in the station, and that is probably the start of protracted and painful exit. Could they reinvent themselves and sell ereaders and the sort of travel accessories today’s Acela and commuter rail traveler want? Perhaps, but that sounds more like those Brookstone outposts in the airport that charge you $25 for a USB cable. Few businesses shrink to greatness and I think it might be best for this one to see the writing on the wall and move along.
I’d rather have some decent food (your best bet now is to go across the street to the Dewey Square food trucks) or decent seating in South Station than a Starbucks, but I’m pretty sure that Starbucks will provide something that commuters really want - charging stations for their precious mobile devices.