Has Barnes & Noble cracked the code for pleasing the 21st Century Book Lover?: The New Store in Virginia Beach

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Visiting the Barnes & Noble Concept Store in Virginia Beach, Virginia: Overall experience

The first Barnes and Noble I ever visited is located near my home in Virginia Beach. To clarify, you can be in Virginia Beach, the city, and still be pretty far away from the beach itself: this store is probably about a 20 minute drive.

For a long time, it was the only one in the area, and a trip to Barnes & Noble was something we would do on a Sunday afternoon or even a weekend evening after dinner. Being able to shop there until 11 pm was big! And of course, being in that big store with all of the books was unheard of! Up until then, we had only the relatively small Waldenbooks stores in the malls.

Gradually, several more stores came to the area, so that particular one in VA Beach wasn’t such a big deal. In fact, it isn’t even the only Barnes & Noble in VA Beach anymore, let alone the surrounding area.

I have been living overseas for more than a decade, and for a long time, going to Barnes & Noble was the highlight of my trips to the United States. But over the last two or three years, I found myself less and less interested in going. I could find out a lot more about books by going online, and with the international capabilities on my kindle, I could actually shop for nearly any book from almost anywhere. The problem isn’t really the Internet: I still love holding the books in my hand. it’s that the book selection at B&N seemed boring. Just the same books, over and over. The same old arrangements. No interesting groupings. Just so bland.

Sometimes I find Amazon.com just as annoying: I miss the days when there was more of a social media element to the site, and you could check out people’s random book lists. But at least Amazon offers almost any book I could want, at a good price. Not that Barnes & Noble doesn’t do the same thing online, but Amazon did it first. Also, Amazon already had an international element when I moved overseas in 2007. Believe it or not, it 2007 I could get almost any book I wanted in English delivered to my door in Tokyo, in one day, with no shipping. The prices weren’t quite as low as the American site, but they weren’t above the normal full price for the book.

And then Kindles hit the market.

Once I moved back to the United States and started to see what is going on here in 2019, I realized with some surprise that I enjoyed going to independent bookstores a lot more, even though they didn’t nearly have the selection of Barnes & Noble. The books were interesting: I was either reminded of things I had forgotten about or found new things. There was a lot more atmosphere. So it generally got to the point that I would only go to Barnes & Noble when I wanted to look at some of the more unusual genres.

I like to browse literary criticism and poetry, and Barnes & Noble has…kind of…decent selections of those. But gradually I discovered that the Indie bookstore is better.

I discovered that Barnes & Noble was remodeling their VA Beach location until I was out with my sister-in-law a couple of months ago and I convinced her to buy a book for her niece’s birthday. We happened to be in the area near this store…except the B&N was shut down! I was so shocked because, as I said, it was the original, and even though they aren’t the only B&N in town anymore, they are usually pretty busy.

When I thought about it; however, I realized with some surprise that store has been there for nearly three decades. My daughter is in her mid-twenties now, and it was there for a while before she was born. And it has never been remodeled, in all of those years!

Wow, no wonder it was looking a big shabby.

Later I found out that it is one of the new “Concept” stores, one of only a few in the country. So now that it’s open, I decided to check it out. It makes sense that they would try a new idea out in this area. Virginia Beach is actually a test market for quite a few chains because of the combination of the tourists and the large military population that draws people from all over (VA Beach is quite popular for Canadians too). So if it will work here, the assumption is that it will probably work for a lot of Americans.

When I pull up to the store (pictured above), I kind of shake my head. When this block first opened, it had 2 stores: the Barnes & Noble and an even bigger “Planet Music”: the biggest music store I had ever seen. Gradually, the Planet Music got smaller, and you can guess why it’s gone now. And now Barnes & Noble has shrunk: the restaurant to the left is new.

My first impression when walking in the store is that it’s much brighter and lighter than it used to be. All of that dark green and heavy wood, along with the murals on the walls, had started to get oppressive. The aisles of books used to seem fun, because there were so many but it had started to feel like a maze. So the open spaces, especially in the front of the store, seemed fresh.

On the other hand, the new look of the store reminded me an awful lot of the Amazon storefronts that I’ve seen in pictures, so that is confusing. How do I know I’m in a Barnes & Noble? I don’t. I understood that the new concept stores are supposed to evoke the “Indie” feeling by having “mini-stores” inside of them, but what I found was the same old sections just reconfigured. In one sense, the reconfiguration makes a lot of sense: I found myself wandering from one section to another, and I had to walk by a lot of sections to which I wouldn’t normally gravitate. There are more books with their covers facing out, and some things did grab my attention.

Is this an interior of a Barnes & Noble or an Amazon store? Compare here.

An example of how these grouping are more instinctive is that the main fiction section is on the wall in the back corner. There are two square sort of “pods” or mini sections, located within the bigger “L” shape: one has Young Adult, graphic novels, manga, and entertainment-related books. The other pod has genre fiction: mysteries, horror, romance, etc.

I noticed a similar tactic in the area that has the magazine stand: the magazines are in an “L”. The third “wall” has some discounted children’s books, and discounted adult fiction was in the middle. So my take away is that B&N assumes that the person who usually shops for books in the remainder section, such as at the Dollar Tree, goes there. I’m not sure how the Barnes & Noble Magazine stand is supposed to integrate with the discount books, because I think these days serious readers are into print magazines…the big discounter is going to read this stuff online for free…but I suppose someone at B&N did their market research.

Discounted books sold near magazines in the new Barnes & Noble…note that they don’t want you to sit down & flip through a magazine anymore. They’ll probably put a “people mover” in next.

The children’s section is much more integrated into the store: it is the whole right side while the adult section is on the left. I noticed they also got rid of the stage…the only thing for kids to do, besides look at books, is play at the Lego table. The bookshelves seem kind of high to me, so I don’t feel like the selection is there for the kids anyway; it’s for the adults. But at least with the more integrated layout, adults are more apt to wander into the children’s section, which wasn’t a possibility before.

Because of the new organization of the books, so that you feel like you’re kind of instinctually moving through from genre to genre, I did enjoy myself more, and I came out of the store with a list of titles that I might not normally have found. So that is good.

I also have to give good marks to the sales staff. I deliberately went in the morning so I didn’t have to deal with crowds, but the store was reasonably busy. I saw mostly young moms and elderly people at that time of day. The staff were visible and were “hand selling” the books by giving recommendations to people. They were friendly, and they seemed to know their stock. One or two asked me if I needed help, but left me alone to browse when I said I was ok.

What is not so great? 1. The store felt less oppressive, but it also still feels bland. Now rather than an outdated personality, there is no personality at all. They café is still Starbucks. Really, who still goes there? I associate a Starbucks drink with chemicals. It’s kind of disgusting to me.

The cafe also looks a lot less comfortable. Now that they have put a nicer cantina in next store, I’m not sure what the point of the cafe is anymore. When I walked in, I was greeted with patrons sitting at the bar facing the parking lot, which honestly isn’t that appealing. And the cafe does not give me the impression they want people to hang out. I felt like I was in an airport myself, and not one of the nicer lounges either.

Feel like hanging out here?

I did notice one kind of cool burst of marketing: you get 5 free drinks from the Starbucks with the Barnes & Noble discount card, which I think makes the card free free, if you are going to drink 5 coffees in a year anyway at Barnes & Noble.

Did you know that prolific horror writer V.C. Andrews (whose books have been ghost written..no pun intended…since her death) lived and died in Virginia Beach? I bet no one at the Virginia Beach Barnes & Noble does either (Hint: V. is for Virginia).

More from The Lois Level

If you forgot how much you loved Flowers in the Attic and want more, check out this Halloween post on more horror classics from the 70’s and 80’s that you might have lost in the haze of time.

Gen X Horror Paperbacks: How did any of us survive the 80’s?

Free Listen

The Very Model of a Modern Major Bookstore

Podcast from Annotated/ BookRiot


What will you actually find on the shelves at a new Barnes & Noble?

The idea behind the new Barnes & Nobles is that the stock is supposed to be localized to the area.

I didn’t find anything significantly different from the old Barnes & Noble. The system of having the covers of more books on the shelves facing out made me notice more books as I walked by, so that did draw me in to some of the sections I would really have had to hunt down before, so that was nice.

The selection in certain areas is somewhat localized, but even then there is a “cookie cutter” element to the feel of the store. The cooking section had a section on the south, but there was nothing that interesting about them: they were all mainstream books. I know that there are books that focus more clearly on Coastal Virginia. There is a wonderful classic local cookbook that wasn’t there, for example.

The “local” section of the cookbook section…major new releases pertaining to the “South” .

Above and below are two classic local cookbooks…which I didn’t see at the Virginia Beach B&N.

The local history section has the same series of books you see everywhere, which is too bad, because I know there are some new titles out there that are specific to our area.

Marooned (below) is a 2018 release that tells the amazing story of the first English settlers…which is a mere 45 minute drive from Virginia Beach.

Sustained Read

I also saw a bit of a nod to the military in the “New Books” section with some books that looked like they were from ex-military types, but they weren’t specific to the navy, which is the focus of this area. Again, the thing here is boating, fishing, and anything to do with the sea. I came away with a list of books that I was excited to see…mostly new nonfiction books by authors I like, so that was nice. I felt that maybe my visit to the new Barnes & Noble was worth the effort.

I’m giving them credit for this nod to the local military although we have navy in the area…no army….

When I got home and started going through the photos I had taken to remind me of what I liked, I also happened to start flipping through a copy of the periodical BookPage, that my local public library gives away. Guess what? All of the books I had seen were featured in the December issue! Um, so really, what is the point?

If you see this magazine in a library or book store, pick it up. It covers a pretty broad range of new books…not just the major fiction titles that you see everywhere.

I was disappointed by the “graphic novels” section. It was difficult to tell the difference between this and the adjoining “manga” section. My local library has a much better graphic section…which is a shame because it’s a burgeoning market that (in my opinion) is more likely to be worth owning and features a product that is better on paper than in an e-book.

Chesapeake Requiem and Journey on the James are two wonderful books by Earl Swift, who is a long time writer for the local newspaper, The Virginian Pilot, that focus on local places and issues. Notice the WATER theme. In a city named Virginia Beach. Get it?

These are the types of books that locals would probably purchase as gifts for relatives near and far.

Sustained Read

Is going to a revitalized Barnes & Noble concept store worth the trip?

These days, to get me to leave my house to shop (ugh), very specific criteria has to be met. Is there something about the product I’m buying that makes me want to see the actual objects rather than look at pictures? Is the store easy/convenient/pleasant to get to? Is there something else to do there? Is it possibly or definitely cheaper to shop in this store than shopping online?

Most Barnes & Noble stores are in major shopping districts, so getting there is annoying. You can see in the picture above, the shopping block this store is in includes shops that have nothing to do with books. So there is no other reason to go.

Ironically, when you stand at the door of this B&N facing out, you can see a new, walkable, “downtown district” that is just begging for a bookstore to wander into…you can see it, but you have to cross a kind of scary 4-lane road and a parking lot to get there.

And I have to cover some major interstate in a part of town known for aggressive drivers to go there. So getting there: ugh.

Books are just about the easiest thing to buy online. Yes, holding and flipping through a book is nice, but when all they have are the major books, I might as well go to the library. Which is a lot closer.

It used to kind of be a pain to get new books at the library, but with the wonderful online systems most have these days: not. And I can even download e-books for free. And I know the library is going to order any major release. So is there a reason to go to hold and look at the merchandise, or compare: not really. Online shopping and library do it too well these days.

Do I enjoy the experience? Nope. Honestly, I feel like I’m in the airport (yes, the cafe and the store). And I only like to feel like I’m in an airport when I’m in an airport. At least then I’m possibly going somewhere interesting. Or getting paid.

So overall, I think Barnes & Noble has missed the mark. If you don’t like doing 100% of your book browsing online, I suggest that you apply for a library card and/or make sure your account is in good standing.

If you ever thought about opening an independent bookstore, this might be your year.

Free Read

Quick Read

Get an In-Depth Look at a Barnes & Noble Concept Store

Author Kristen Kwisneck seems to have had a better experience with the new Barnes & Noble in Columbia, MD than I did with the store in Virginia Beach. Maybe the difference is that the manager seems to have known she was coming (if she really went there; the story is kind of generic). When I go to check out a bookstore, I just go in as a regular customer.

I only saw one of the “theaters” mentioned in this article, and they featured the new books.

The country’s smallest Barnes & Noble opens at Mosaic

From Washington Business Journal: the Maryland/D.C./VA section of the East Coast seems to be important to Barnes & Noble’s business plan.