It Says Something, But I’m Not Sure What

4 05 2010

A brand new Barnes & Noble opened up next to my gym.  So naturally I had to check it out after I was done with my workout tonight.  It’s a very nice, very big store.  Twenty-six thousand square feet, according to the Cat in the Hat who was greeting visitors (he told his interpreter who told me, of course).  I made a B-line for the history section.  Thankfully, there was a sign on the Civil War section, which I took as a good omen – the Civil War selection at the old area B&N store (which is closing) had been shrinking steadily over the past two years.  But when I got there, I found that a total of three shelves was it.  And only one book was a new release: the rest were paperbacks (a small consolation: the store carried the magazines for which I write).  With the sesquicentennial looming, I’m not sure what this says about the state of things.  Is it more indicative of lack of specific interest, or of the state of publishing, or of the social philosophy of the corporation, or of the economy in general?  What do you think?  Ultimately, it’s about the bottom line.  If $40 McFarland paperbacks were flying off the shelves, I’m sure B&N would find room for them.

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19 responses

4 05 2010
Eric Wittenberg


Unfortunately, that is now very much par for the course for Barnes & Noble. The stores here in Columbus are the same way. There are two stores within a five mile radius of my house, and I can’t get either one of them to carry my books, and I’m a local author.

Consequently, I have made the decision that I will never, ever spend another dollar there. I will either buy from Borders, or I will buy from independents, or I will buy from Amazon. I could have purchased two books there on Sunday and elected not to. I ordered both from Amazon and actually paid less.

It’s not much, but I view it very much as a matter of principle.


4 05 2010
Harry Smeltzer

Fight the power, Eric. You have nothing to lose but your chains!

4 05 2010

I had gift card burning through my pocket the other day and was so disappointed after a visit to B&N I almost went home empty-handed. I decided to drop by the local Borders, and managed to find several titles in a much larger Civil War section. Like Eric, though, I usually end up ordering from Amazon.


4 05 2010
Harry Smeltzer

Steve, I’m the same way. I use B&N and Borders to check the books out, look at the picture section (you can learn a lot about a book from the picture section), the biblio, the notes. Then if I like it I find it online or keep an eye out for it a Half Price books. Of course, this feeds the whole reason I suspect B&N doesn’t carry many CW books – we are becoming discerning, resourceful and frugal consumers. I usually only buy at B&N or Borders when someone gives me a gift card or I get additional discounts from my store memberships (in addition to my regular 10% discount, occasionally I get others via email or snail mail).

5 05 2010
Terry Johnston


No B&N around here, but the nearby Borders has been moving in the same direction, i.e., a dwindling CW section. It’s getting to the point where it’s not even worth browsing.

As for buying, I agree that Amazon’s the way to go, more often than not. But don’t forget the American Book Exchange ( I’m constantly finding “used” titles in mint condition–and at greatly reduced prices.

Oh, and what sort of qualities do you look for in a book’s picture section?

5 05 2010
Harry Smeltzer


It’s interesting, but the Border’s in Pittsburgh’s South Hills has a pretty good size ACW section. I think one of the managers is a buff, and have seen in the past that they have hosted discussions of Gettysburg on site.

I would also point out Amazon’s marketplace for new, used and remaindered books. I’ve used them in the past, and they work similar to ABE.

First thing in a photo section, you hate to see mislabled images – one book on the Tullahoma campaign has a picture of A. P. Stewart clearly labled as Cleburne (or vice versa). Second, the captions can tell you a lot about what direction the author is headed in – take a look at Bobrick’s recent bio of Thomas. The photo captions tell you much of what you need to know about that particular book.

As you can guess, I’m not a fan of the current trend of putting the photos willy-nilly in the text. I like that big section, and usually the quality of the images is better.

5 05 2010
Terry Johnston


I’m guessing that the CW section at my local Borders is about a a quarter to a third of the size it was several years ago. Short of eliminating it altogether, it would be hard to see it get much smaller (two to three shelves) than it is now.

I am familiar with Amazon’s used book marketplace, and I’ve used it on occasion. One thing I like about ABE is that it’s easy to interact with the sellers. (Perhaps this is also possible with Amazon.) I guess I’m also a bit loyal to ABE, seeing as I’ve been using it for years now, when it was nearly the only such service around (at least one that didn’t mark up the sellers’ prices.)

As for a book’s photo section, I gotta tell you, I don’t mind having several ‘mini’ sections throughout, versus one big ‘central’ section. But I’m definitely with you re: captions.

5 05 2010
Drew Wagenhoffer

I think the selection on the river is the best, but I like ABE, too. The sellers are supposedly more professional, and that seems to be the case, but have had several bad experiences there as well. I’ve only tried B&N’s third party marketplace once and it worked out very well.

The B&N brick and mortar stores around here are down to less than one shelf of CW titles, almost all unimaginatively selected backlist or paperback reprints of proven titles. Borders is little better, but only in numbers. Neither stock new titles beyond pop history’s usual suspects. WW2, on the other hand, is a different story with a wonderfully diverse selection of academic and popular histories, which demonstrates at least that the managers are aware of the wider military history publishing scene, they just have so little confidence in selling Civil War titles. Kinda disheartening. WW2 interest is universal, but I would guess that the quality of ACW selection is much more regional.

5 05 2010
Terry Johnston


Glad to say I’ve yet to have a bad experience with an ABE seller. Though I’m sure it could happen.

Next time I’m at my Borders, I’ll try to tell (if possible) what’s taking the place, shelf-space wise, of the formerly large CW section. The history section itself hasn’t shrunk, so some other era must have expanded. At least I think it must have.

But I do know that this Borders has a pretty solid colonial / Revolutionary War section. And WWII.

5 05 2010
Chris Evans

I like to get certain books from B & N when the price has gone greatly down from the retail price. I have found on occasion some pretty excellent deals online and in my local B & N store from the bargain sections. I think the days of paying full retail price for a book in the store are ,for me, finished.
Thanks for the interesting discussion,

5 05 2010
Chris Army

Come to Knoxville Harry….while B&N does have less ACW books than previously seen, the local Borders has expanded their section to include at least 2 1/2 of the tall shelves full of titles. Perhaps it’s up to the local manager to decide and the Knoxville CWRT is very active in membership so my guess is the books move. I actually saw a Pfanz First Day paperback there yesterday!

I also picked up the latest article you wrote on the Leister house – great job, I enjoyed it!

5 05 2010
Harry Smeltzer

Thanks Chris!

5 05 2010

As a voracious reader of all things Civil War, I would like to see more maps throughout the books. One of the reasons the “Maps of …” series has done so well is the great maps on every other page… you can follow the action so much better than constantly flipping back or ahead to a map somewhere in the book that pertains to what you’re reading about at the time.

Another great source for maps, which I print out and use when reading about a particular action, battle, etc. is wikipedia. Superb maps, and a great aid to understanding what is going on, terrain, etc., as you read the text of your book. These wiki maps helped immensely when reading a detailed book on, say, Chickamauga or Shiloh ( and yes, I’ve read “The Maps of Chickamauga”… the best yet of this series. I hope someone follows this method on all the battles, even the lesser ones.

Oh, yeah…. I buy from Alibris quite a lot, usually used for peanuts.

5 05 2010

The situation is no better here in Daytona Beach. B&N has about 3 shelves of which at least one shelf is just utter junk. Again mostly reprints and several of their own imprint titles (on which they make the highest profit margin of course). Somehow they seem to keep Russell Bonds two books in stock. Not sure I understand but good for him. We have a Books-A-Million that when they first opened had a halfway decent section–about 6 shelves. It’s gone downhill steadily and if you take away all the faceouts and books that don’t belong there it’s probably about the same as B&N.

Of course the fact that little fighting of consequence happened in Florida I suppose it is to be expected. Thank heavens for the internet!

6 05 2010

Interesting comments from everyone.

I live in the DC metro area–Northern Virginia to be exact. As you might imagine, the big chains here carry a lot of Civil War books, even a retailer like Books-A-Million has some good titles. I assume this has a lot to due with the fact that this region’s history is so wrapped up in the war. (There are also a ton of political science titles, as may be expected!) We also have access to unique books at the area’s sites, such as Fort Ward, which sells titles on the defenses of Washington and Alexandria during the war.

That being said, I prefer to check out titles at the store (for the same reason that Harry does), and then purchase new or used (like new) titles from Amazon, Ebay, or other sellers. I also use Ebay to acquire first edition Civil War books. It may be a little risky, but I’ve bought near fine copies of Grant’s Memoirs and a few other memoirs from the late 19th and early 20th centurty on there.

And if you ever make it to McLean, check out Old Book Company of McLean, the used book store that has quite a few Civil War titles, many in excellent condition.

6 05 2010
Harry Smeltzer

The Old Book Company. I’ll keep that one in mind, Ron. Of course, I don’t think I could resist it if I saw the storefront or sign, with a name like that.

By the way, I was in B&N again today (the boy wanted the new Dan Gutman book, “Roberto and Me”) and sat through the Nook sales pitch. Seems like a viable device for reading public domain pdfs from places like Google books. And novels, of course. But I’m having trouble seeing myself buying copyrighted CW books in e-format. Though I gotta tell you, it has some cool features.

6 05 2010
Phil LeDuc

I too usually buy from However, I have made on-line purchases from both B&N and Borders recently. In the case of B&N, I had a gift card and I got maximum mileage from it by using it when I had one of B&N’s e-mailed discount offers on top of my Readers Advantage membership. With Borders I use one of their 25% or 33%-off e-mailed discount offers and then buy a book I want where Amazon’s price doesn’t have their usual 34% or so discount. The main thing is to comparison shop, especially if you have a discount offer from either B&N or Borders. Note though that this is mainly for on-line purchasing; my observations re B&N and Borders stores are pretty much the same as those above. Borders still is a little better than B&N on ACW titles, but I think the company’s financial situation has put a crimp in the overall inventory mix and quantity of titles they carry.

6 05 2010

It could be worse, you could be in California, where our section is limited to only a quarter of a shelf. Out here, looking for anything about the Civil War is like trying to find water in teh Mojave Desert.

I gave up on Borders, B&N, and all other stores. I buy all of my books from Amazon. They are always 20-30% cheaper (even with Borders coupons), and the shipping is free on $25.00 or more orders, which is a plus because I can convince the Mrs to let me buy two instead of one book. :)

13 05 2010

Perhaps, as Eric suggested months ago on his blog, the CW “craze” since the early 1990s has simply run its course. ‘Nigh on twenty years have passed since Ken Burns’ series re-awakened interest in the time period. Can any historical craze hang on indefinitely, especially given the runaway pace of technology (and its ten-thousand attendant distractions competing for the public’s interest)? Doubtful…

Here in suburban Atlanta, B&N is all but useless. Most of the titles date from the last decade, and the newer items are usually either Lincoln biographies (from the “bumper crop” of the 2009 bicentennial) or general histories, neither of which particularly interest me. They don’t seem to interest the general public either, as I tend to see the same items sitting there month after month.

Borders is generally better; this past week I found copies of Gallaghers’ essay collections for Spotsylvania and the 1862 Valley Campaign, along with a reprint of Wert’s “Winchester to Cedar Creek”, neither of which I’ve ever seen available before. Still, the trend is towards more colonial history (the American Revolution section is easily twice as large as it was even a few months before) and more modern history, and I expect that will continue.

Thankfully, I’m about to start as a seasonal ranger at Chickamauga-Chattanooga, which has quite a nice book store : )

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