"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 15 November 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Anywhere, USA



The joke's on Hillary: Villages

don't exist in America. And if

it does take a village to raise

a child... well, drop your kid

off at a mall and he'll quickly

learn that community and

commodity are not easily

discernible from each other.

He'll need cash, or at least a

credit line, for both.


As Americans scour strip malls in

search of what sociologist Ray

Oldenburg calls the "third

space" - a public place for

social interaction that is

neither home nor work -

corporations are itching to fill

the void. The zoning of tract

house after tract house over the

past 40 years has left us with

nowhere to socialize, and only

Boston Market, and perhaps

Blockbuster, to get us through

an evening. We experience what

the seminal expert on third

spaces, Henry Miller, once

called "the end of world

ambience." France has its cafes,

England its pubs, Turkey its

coffeehouses, America its...

Wal-Marts? "Urban renewal"

efforts of the 1980s failed to

recreate third spaces in our

cities, and only confirmed what

suburbanites assumed all along -

our cities are hopeless, and

better just to leave them be.



Nevertheless, Americans still

need a Cheers, where everybody

knows your name, or at least

that you like your latte

nonfat. We crave culture, but

at a bargain rate; we yearn for

interaction, but need our space.

Consumption remains a leisure

activity, but today we are not

so foolish to believe that a

trip to the mall constitutes

solid interaction. And we are

less tolerant of the

pseudoambience we embraced a

decade ago, like a piano player

on Nordstrom's third floor, near

the lingerie section.



Today, corporations seek to

attract the fickle consumer by

turning stores into "shopping

destinations," where the craving

for a third space can be

fulfilled without compromising

our need for convenience: high

ceilings, overstuffed chairs,

roomy bathrooms, expansive wood

floors, pine tables with

products neatly stacked on them,

and, of course, the flagship

color of the '90s - teal.



Nobody has transformed a store

into a shopping destination with

more vigor than Barnes & Noble.

Those in search of community

find it in the straight rows of

books, the familiarity in

titles, the librarian-like

uniforms of the employees, and

the reassuring sameness in the

adjacent Starbucks cafe. The

unrelenting banality of Barnes &

Nobles - whether in Evanston, or

Seattle, or Cupertino, or New

York City - is not accident.

Sameness has become so expected

in American culture that one of

Oldenburg's criteria for an

ideal third space, that it "fall

short of the middle-class

preference for cleanliness and

modernity," sounds as outdated

as his own favorite third space -

a corner donut shop. No

fat-free muffins there.


Barnes & Noble has taken the

concept of the shopping

destination one step further by

transforming a franchise into a

community - based on the

assumption that a community can

be built around books. Studies

show that a majority of Barnes &

Noble shoppers would not

normally step foot into a

"regular" bookstore - i.e., one

filled with dust and clutter and

lacking the triumphant displays

of William Bennett's latest.

Frequenters of Barnes & Nobles

are made to feel connected to a

larger, literary community that

spans across America - even if

that community is gobbling up

Men Are from Mars, Women Are

from Venus.



The number of books sold through

chains like Barnes & Noble

doubled from 1991 to 1994,

according to the American

Booksellers Association, and the

rapidity with which Barnes &

Noble has spread across the

American landscape puts it in

leagues with other "category

killer" stores such as Wal-Mart,

Home Depot, and Toys 'R' Us.

With 3 million books in print

worldwide - 1.5 million in

English - and fresh product

being manufactured daily,

there's no lack of culture to be




Or so Barnes & Noble hopes.

Though the company has managed

to blend consumerism and culture

into a seamless product,

arguably its biggest draw is

still the 30 percent discount on

bestsellers. The company's

latest print ad campaign, of a

figure sitting near an inviting

bookshelf filled with rows and

rows of titles, with the caption

"you don't even need to point

and click," is a direct

counterpoint to the recent

advances of the only company who

can feasibly cut into its market

share - Amazon.com.


With over 1 million titles in its

database, Amazon.com sells books

as commodity, not as warm and

fuzzy culture. And with

discounts on the top 300,000

sellers, same-day delivery, and

perks such as book-browsing

(real) personal agents and email

notification of title

availablity, Amazon.com is

turning web surfers into

shoppers (and sellers), not

through sofas and lattes and

literary events, but through

boilerplate hard sell. It works,

too - revenues have jumped 34

percent per month since the

company started little over a

year ago.


But as long as the nostalgia for Main

Street, USA, remains vivid in

the American consciousness, and

as long as suburban sprawl

remains rooted in isolation, the

longing for community will still

move product at Barnes & Noble.

As the saying goes, nothing

happens until somebody sells


courtesy of Miss de Winter