The End of Serendipity: Why Barnes & Noble’s Closing of Its Store Across From Lincoln Center on New York’s Upper West Side is a Bad Thing, Including Bad for TV and the Studios

Sep 3, 2010

I lived in New York for much of the 1990s, on the Upper West Side. I still get to New York fairly often, including my old haunts on the Upper West Side.

When I lived there, I used to really enjoy going into Tower Records, which was pretty much where the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble is now, but across the street.

What was so great about a big brick and mortar specialist store like Tower, even after so much music became available online, was the serendipity factor.

Having a wide range of interest in music—I’m pretty much open to anything but opera—I spent countless hours at Tower flipping through various CD bins just looking for anything that might catch my fancy.

I didn’t need Tower to know about the latest CD by Springsteen or newest song from Madonna.

But there are any number of CDs that I picked up while browsing the bins that I would have never been exposed to, Pandora and the like notwithstanding.

Music such as “The Best of New Orleans Rhythm & Blues, Vol. 1, “Annie Ross’ Cool for Kids,” “Shoutin’ Swingin’ and Makin’ Love” with blues shouter Wynonie Harris and Jimmy Witherspoon, “Meet the Zombies!” and “Frank Sinatra with the Red Norvo Quintet Live in Australia, 1959.”

Once Tower closed, when I visited New York I often went to the Virgin Mega Music Store in Times Square to browse. Then it closed.

But, for the past 15 years, there’s always been the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble on West 66th and Broadway. It’s in the oddest shaped space, mostly vertical with numerous floors. The signature Barnes & Noble Café, with bunches of magazines and the store’s restrooms, is all the way on the top floor.

As you take the escalators up and up, you go by book display after book display. It’s on one of these book displays that I picked up one of the books that promised to explain Einstein to lay readers.

I think I have three of them now. Despite each of them garnering critical acclaim on their book jackets as perfect for my non-Einsteinian mind, and despite the fact that I actually thumbed through each one to see if I could undertand it, once I bought them and actually tried to read them, each one instantly confused me and I gave up on all of them.

I’m afraid the extent of my understanding of science is “The Big Bang Theory,” which I like a lot and think it’ll do fine when it moves to Thursdays this fall.

Speaking of TV shows, there are tons of them in the basement level at the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble. It was while browsing there that I picked up a copy of classic TV shows on a DVD from the Criterion Collection called “The Golden Age of Television,” with Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty,” Rod Serling’s “Patterns,” and six other shows.

It’s for this serendipity shopping that this strangely shaped Barnes & Noble store is especially well-suited. The Barnes & Noble a few blocks north of Zabars on the Upper West Side has nothing of the Lincoln Center store’s charm.

According to what I read in Crain’s New York Business, my favorite Barnes & Noble–the Lincoln Center location–will close at the end of January, another victim of high rents.

It’s not good for all these megastores that feature books and movies and TV shows and music to keep closing. It’s killing the joy of serendipity; a joy that benefits the consumer, the retailer and the wholesaler.

Perfect example: On one of my trips to New York last year I spent some time browsing at the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble. I came across a copy of “The Big Sleep,” directed by Howard Hawks and starring Humphrey Bogart and his real-life lover and wife, Lauren Bacall.

It’s a movie I’ve seen numerous times. What caught my eye this time, however, was one of the special features on the DVD—a copy of the film that was different, that had been cut and actually previewed that didn’t include all the sparks between Bogart and Bacall and had about 20 minutes of different footage. This I had to see, so I bought it.

Not knowing that this other version of the film existed, it’s probably not something I’d ever run into online. That would have been a shame for me, for the retailer and for the studio that made the film, Warner Bros.

You can’t buy what you don’t know you want, or that you don’t know exists. That’s the value of the in-person serendipitous browse.

It’s like the schmooze. You just can’t do it properly online.#

11 Comments

  1. Hear, hear! (Also here, here, seeing as I live around the corner.)

  2. Thank you for this. You expressed what I was trying to say in a piece I wrote the other day about the demise of the small business. Tower wasn’t small, but it felt like it. It was a place where you felt comfortable hanging out and browsing and I miss those stores so much. Flipping through the pages on Amazon just isn’t the same.

  3. I’m sorry to hear about this. I spent a lot of time at that Tower Records when I lived in NYC. I’ve been to that B&N store a few times when in town, usually killing time between meetings (especially in the wintertime!)Sad to say but probably many more book/CD/DVD stores will be closing over the next few years so those opportunities to discover something unexpected and totally cool will be increasingly rare. Bummer!

  4. I agree with your sentiments about serendipity, but you might want to give opera a try.
    Did you like The Doors’ “Alabama Song”? It’s from the opera “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.” How about Janis Joplin’s “Summertime”? It’s from the opera “Porgy & Bess.”
    You like old TV shows. The theme from “The Lone Ranger” is from the overture to the opera “William Tell.”
    You like old movies. The Academy-Award winning score of the movie “The Adventures of Robin Hood” was by opera composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The music associated with the line “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” is from the opera “Die Walkure.”
    Opera was responsible for (among other things) the first stereo sound transmission (1881), the first broadcast (1890), and even the first newscast (1893). Edison said the purpose of movies was to deliver opera; TV pioneer Charles Francis Jenkins said the same of television.
    It’s even possible that Pele wouldn’t have become an athletic superstar if not for opera. Try it; you might like it.

  5. thanks a lot .

  6. Aaah, thank you, Chuck Ross, for celebrating “the art of the browse”! I, too, like to spend hours picking through music and DVD bins, trusting that I’ll come across something terrific that catches my fancy. I’m afraid today’s consumer gets too caught up in a herd mentality, and the cool factor has gone right out the window. What a pity! RIP, Tower Records, Virgin Megastore and now B+N at Lincoln Center! What’s a girl to do now?

  7. It’s disappointing when we lose these opportunities. I was sad when the Earthling Bookstore in Santa Barbara closed. This is a reason why those of us who like this kind of browsing need to frequent our local independent bookstores, or they’ll disappear, too! Because my browsing time is limited these days, it usually turns into putting key words into Amazon to see what comes up and then looking at whom other people follow on Twitter to see how interesting and valuable their commentary is…

  8. Here is another New York serendipitous tale related to both Tower Records and Barnes and Noble late night hours.
    For years, New York radio disk jockey Vin Scelsa would have a unique weekend radio program, IDIOT’S DELIGHT. Often if he played an odd record or spoke of a book, we would drive over to one of these places and complete the connection commenced via the airwaves.

  9. Gee Chuck, if you’re looking for “serendipity” try going to a library. If that’s the ONLY reason you can lament the loss of BN’s Lincoln Center store, you’re making an incredibly facile, thin point. You like to browse. Got it. There are other bookstores you can go to. Some other retailer will go into this space, very soon. The bigger issue was why BN, a mass marketer with little positive on the neighborhood, moved into the area to begin with.

  10. So true….

  11. The Zune concentrates on being a Portable Media Player. Not a web browser. Not a game machine. Maybe in the future it’ll do even better in those areas, but for now it’s a fantastic way to organize and listen to your music and videos, and is without peer in that regard. The iPod’s strengths are its web browsing and apps. If those sound more compelling, perhaps it is your best choice.

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