Click to follow
New Yorkers with literary inclinations regard Barnes & Noble the way Greens regard McDonald's, as a monopolist which treats books as yet more fast-moving consumer goods. It certainly doesn't feel like McDonald's, though. Cheap it may be, but it has spent a fortune on not looking cheerful. At Union Square in Manhattan, Barnes & Noble stakes a claim to the tradition of the great public library, if not to that of the cathedral.

It's a lofty aspiration, and an even loftier store. The shelves are as widely spaced as the flowerbeds in an ornamental garden, enhancing the impression of sheer volume. Upstairs, there are desks where young people may quietly study. Chairs ready for literary events cover an area the size of a dancefloor. On a weekday morning it is considerably more serene than many of London's academic libraries.

The air of unreality is compounded by the price tickets, offering discounts of 10, 20 or 30 per cent. This is about as expensive as shop overheads get. As with CD-ROMs packaged in outsize cardboard boxes, somebody has to pay for all that air. Barnes & Noble is not a philanthropic institution dedicated to the cultural improvement of the populace. It is just themed that way. Those public ideals are becoming museum pieces. This, presumably, is the bookshop of the future.

It might seem perverse to object to a bookshop that is spacious and has seats. But there are other regrettable aspects to the literary theme store besides its gross pretensions. If the shop is lavish and the books discounted, authors will bear the cost. The store will also rely, even more heavily than at present, on amplifying the sales of a small fraction of titles by means of special promotion. That suits readers - the enjoyment they get out of a book is enhanced by discussing it with all the other people who have read it. But the price is an increasingly formulaic approach to publishing.

Happily, the Internet offers an alternative that is both technologically advanced and conducive to literary diversity. Browsing Web bookshops is not a luxurious experience, like a visit to a branch of a books chain. The standard layout of bookshop sites - including the latest entrant in the field, Barnes & Noble - features a search facility at the top of the front page. On-line shoppers are assumed to have more idea of what they want than in-store customers. That may be mainly because they go to the Net for titles they can't find in the shops, but it may also reflect a less steered approach to consumption.

The on-line sector is still far from commercial maturity. The much-publicised may have sold more than $16 million's worth of books in the last two years, but last year it made a loss of $6 million. We'll have to wait and see whether the on-line market has a different character from that of the stores, with sales spread more widely across the stocklists. At the moment, the techniques for concentrating sales are less alluring, and less prominent, than those used in shops. A stamp-sized graphic of a book cover is a poor substitute for being able to hold the real thing in one's hand.

But enterprises are rapidly realising what a good medium the Net is for precision marketing, playing to the consumer's sense of self. Barnes and Noble are working on "personal bookseller" software, which will punt books to customers on the basis of what they have bought in the past. The automation of the books industry will be complete.