Bookstore Chains as the Unsustainable Middle

Further interesting trends in bookstores in my neverending attempt to find a bricks-and-mortar business model that can withstand broadband.

(And if you don’t understand why that’s important to education, well, I don’t have enough time to help you.)

OK, you saw below the recent slump that the chains have hit, compared to Amazon.

Well, here’s a neat fact – Amazon, e-books, and a lousy economy are apparently beating the hell of of the Barnes & Nobles of the world, but according to the Boston Globe independent booksellers have been barely touched:

Nationwide, sales in bookstores of all types fare better than in many businesses. The Census Bureau reports that bookstore sales in January 2009 were virtually unchanged from January 2008, compared with an 8 percent decline in total retail and food service sales. The big chains did not share that good news. Barnes & Noble’s store sales dropped 5 percent last quarter compared with 2007, capping a year that CEO Steve Riggio called “the most challenging year that the company and the industry have ever experienced.” Fourth-quarter sales in Borders superstores plunged 15 percent, and the chain closed 112 of its Waldenbooks locations in 2008.

Interesting, right?

Or, Then Again (The Bookstore Numbers Are In)

I’d been looking for an example of an industry that had successfully altered its business model, and defied the onslaught of BEE (Broadband Eats Everything). Stories about the newspapers and the record industries wake people up, but people need positive models to function and get inspired, one can’t run entirely on anti-patterns.

The other day, after reading Clay Shirky’s Social Hubs piece,  I thought I’d come across one – bookstores. True, the e-book and Wal-mart threats to book sales are relatively new. But was one of the first commercial web sensations, widely proclaimed as the death of brick and mortar stores.

Yet the stores are still here, right?

Well, kind of:


I don’t know enough about the industry to say much worthwhile, but those curves up there start to look a little like other industries, ones that muddle along thinking they have dodged the bullet, that the “internet thing” was all just hype, a passing fad – and then boom – the decline begins.

On the other hand, this looks a much softer landing than the newspaper industry — you don’t see a 68% reduction over 8 years here.  The initial effects seem to be muted by the fact people are reading (and watching and listening) more than ever. It’s not quite the zero-sum game a daily newspaper tended to represent.

Bookstores as Social Hubs and Education

Clay Shirky, from a recent post on his blog about bookstores:

The local bookstore creates all kinds of value for its community, whether its providing community bulletin boards, putting rocking chairs in the kids section, hosting book readings, or putting benches out in front of the store. Local writers, harried parents, couples on dates, all get value from a store’s existence as a inviting physical location, value separate from its existence as a transactional warehouse for books.

The store doesn’t get paid for this value. It gets paid for selling books. That ecosystem works — when it works — as long as the people sitting in those rocking chairs buy enough books, on average, to cover the added cost of having the chairs in the first place. The blows to that model have been coming for some time, from big box retailers stocking best sellers to online sales (especially second-hand sales) to the spread of ebooks to, now, price wars.

A while ago I asked a question on twitter that got no responses. Basically, the question was this: We always talk about the industries crashing in the digital economy. But where are the models of survival?

In other words, it’s great to tell college administrators they shouldn’t be like the record companies or the newspapers. But where are the inspiring stories of industries that changed? Because frankly if we’re all going down anyway, why not just double down on failure and cross your fingers?

It occurs to me that bookstores are a great example of an industry that survived through evolution. As Shirky points out in his post (emphasis mine):

Online bookselling improves on many of the core functions of a bookstore, not just price and breadth of available books, but ways of searching for books, and of getting recommendations and context. On the other hand, the functions least readily replicated on the internet — providing real space in a physical location occupied by living, breathing people — have always been treated as side effects, value created by the stores and captured by the community, but not priced directly into the transactions.

All of this makes it clear what those bookstores will have to do if the profits or revenues of the core transaction fall too far: collect revenue for the side-effects.

The most famous version of this is bookstore-as-coffeeshop, where the revenues from coffee subsidize the lingering over books and vice-versa, but other ways of generating revenue are possible. Reservable space for book clubs, writers rooms, or study carrels; membership with buy-back options for a second-hand book market run out of the same space; certain shopping hours reserved for members or donors; use of volunteer labor, like a food coop; sponsorships from the people or businesses in the neighborhood most interested in the social value of the store and most interested in being known as local machers.

Local bookstores have survived much longer than I would have predicted. And in the world where Amazon’s name recognition is pretty much ubiquitous, the mega-chains have actually grown.

But unlike local record shops, which have largely disappeared outside of major metropolitan areas, and chain record shops (of the Strawberries and Coconuts variety) that where still extant seem to have that slight eau-de-Radio-Shack, bookstores have survived. And they did so primarily by embracing and emphasizing their function as a social hub — increasing the readings, providing other means of subsidizing the activities of the store (coffee shops, etc).  In fact, bookstores did this so well and record stores so poorly that in country where book sales generate a fraction of the revenue music does, the average consumer is probably more likely to buy a CD in a bookstore at this point than a record store.

There’s problems with this analysis, sure.  But I wonder if it provides at least a partially positive model for campus-based education in general, if only because I’m drawing a blank on any other significant broadband survivors….

Better Balance

I think I’m going to try to get a better balance on this blog. I’m actually excited about a lot of things we are doing at Keene State — but because a lot of the things we are moving forward are fragile I’m in the position a lot of bloggers are in — the rants about the outside world end up outnumbering talk discussions of the real progress we are making — because we’re afraid that talking about it too early will spook people, or cause unnecessary drama.

That’s not to say the rants will go — I need some way to funnel my frustration with the ridiculous politics around education into something constructive. But I’m going to start trying to blend in more of what we are doing…

School Choice, Civics Knowledge, and Fraud

So that Oklahoma “civics test“” from a couple of months ago? The one that looked fishy to anyone with half a brain? The one where most students couldn’t name the first president, and thought the two parties in the U.S. were Republican and Communist?

The one that generated of so much-hand wringing from the Ed Hirsch Fan Brigade about how Democracy couldn’t function unless we adopted voucher programs right-the-hell-now and replaced all this liberal kid-hugging nonsense with some old fashioned content drills?

It was faked, says Nate Silver:

There is no reason to think, in other words, that the students in House District 15 should have gotten such profoundly superior results to the “students” in Strategic Vision’s survey. Nor could Strategic Vision’s results have been the result of any sort of mathematical or methodological oddity. Consider their claim that literally none of the 1,000 students they surveyed were able to answer more than 7 of the 10 questions correctly — lower than the average score achieved in Cannaday’s test.

There are, rather, only two possibilities. Either the Strategic Vision survey was entirely fabricated — or Cannaday’s was.

Once again, not suprising to anyone with an ounce of quantitative literacy, or even a passing familiarity with actual students.

As always the bigger question ends up being not about the content knowledge of our current students, but about the critical thinking skills of their parents, the dumbest generation by any objective standard, who get duped by this nonsense again and again.

Open Google Test

This is a neat idea — because if you make assessment authentic, courses have to change, of necessity:

In Denmark, the government has taken the bold step of allowing pupils full access to the internet during their final school year exams.
A total of 14 colleges in Denmark are piloting the new system of exams and all schools in the country have been invited to join the scheme by 2011.

I’d be interested to know (and may research) how the practice of open book tests transforms pedagogical practice (and student focus) in those classrooms that adopt it. I would guess that we are looking at something similar here.

Abstinence-only Web Education

So I came up with this term a couple of minutes ago, and was surprised when I Googled it to find it didn’t exist.

So here it is. And here is what it expresses — my utter shock that when talking to some otherwise intelligent adults about the fact that we are not educating our students to be critical consumers of web content, or to use networks to solve problems, etc — my utter shock that often as not the response to this problem is “Well, if students would just stop getting information from the web and go back to books, this whole problem would go away.”

Shockingly crazy worldview, I hereby name you “Abstinence-only Web Education”.

Adding this: there is always this resentment of people in the Academy toward the term “real world” — as in what we teach them “in here” has to pertain to the real world “out there”. I sympathize with that resentment, and even commiserated about the inappropriateness of the term with a coworker a couple nights ago.

But it’s things like abstinence-only web education that make that term relevant and, yes, often a legitimate critique. It’s not everybody, true, but the belief of even a percentage in higher education that what we really need to do is get back to printed books to solve the information filter problem is evidence enough that we are insulated from the world outside the campus, and to a stunning degree.

Polymath, Blogging, and HE

I really don’t know what it will take to show higher education how anti-intellectual their dismissal of Web 2.0 has been. But one might think this speech from Fields Medalist Terence Tao might have an effect.

Very recently, software tools have become available to allow easier collaboration by large numbers of authors from across the world.  Unlike the sciences, pure mathematics in academia has never really had the large laboratories in which armies of graduate students, postdocs, and senior researchers work on a single goal; but the technology is just becoming available for such large-scale projects to be possible.

This year, for instance, by ad hoc usage of existing tools such as blogs and wikis, the first “polymath” projects were launched – massively collaborative mathematical research projects, completely open for any interested mathematician to drop in, make some observations on the problem at hand, and discuss them with the other participants.

The very first such project solved a significant problem in combinatorics after almost six weeks of effort, with almost a thousand small but non-trivial contributions from dozens of participants.  It was a novel way to do mathematics, but also a novel way to locate the collaborators with the right expertise and interest to solve the problem, perhaps serving as a model to begin collaborations through online networking rather than physical networking.

But then again, probably not.

Core Knowledge, Magellan, and the Great Man Theory of History

I guess in honor of Columbus Day the Core Knowledge Blog has put up a list of questions about the Age of Exploration. The first question is this:

1. Who was the first explorer to circumnavigate the world?

The answer they list below is:

Ferdinand Magellan

This is going to sound like nitpicking, but this answer is wrong. Magellan, as I am sure the folks over there know, never circumnavigated the world, having died mid-journey. His crew, or rather, 18 of his original crew, did make it around the globe, but not him.

Is that nitpicking? I suppose people will say that it’s common to talk about expeditions under the names of their leaders in historical discussion, but that’s not the way the question is phrased. It’s not asking what the first expedition to circumnavigate the globe was — it’s asking who the first explorer to circle the globe was.

I tend to see this as a bit of a Freudian slip — for reasons I can grasp intuitively but find hard to express there is a strong link between the Core Knowledge people and the Great Man Theory of History. It’s no surprise that where you find a Core Knowledger getting the vapors it’s usually over someone forgetting the name of a 19th century President.

On their “Age of Exploration” quiz, the answers to ten of the twelve questions are the names of explorers. Not the nations the explorers were from, or the technologies that made such exploration possible. Not even how the various expeditions were funded, or who stood to gain. Certainly not the social context.

This is not accidental, although it may be unconscious. There is a persistent push in these questions that we must associate all achievement (and conversely all atrocities, I suppose) with the actions of individuals, and not the societies or institutions that produced them. Can someone explain to me how that is *not* a highly ideological stance?

It wasn’t Spain that first circumnavigated the world. It was *Magellan*. Through his individual gumption. Through the force of his character. Through his rugged individualism. Through his not-on-the-dole initiative.

[And he never took a hand-out except for, you know, that whole state funded venture]

Forget the backers of the expedition, the hundreds of men that died, the eighteen that made it, the Basque captain that finished the journey. Forget the societal context (Not! A! Fact!).

It was Magellan who first circumnavigated the globe. Even if it wasn’t.

Common Core, Bloom’s Taxonomy, and Thinking Historically

I’ve just read what is hands-down my favorite article this month. It’s so good that I hate to excerpt or summarize it, so please read the whole thing whole thing if you can.

Ok, for those of you that don’t take orders well — the core of the article deals with a well-educated AP student that has come through a history education that has given him a command of facts that the Common Core crowd would be goodly proud of. They give him a document to analyze historically:

The document was a proclamation by President Benjamin Harrison in 1892. “Discovery Day,” as Harrison called it, honored Christopher Columbus as a “pioneer of progress and enlightenment.” In the schools, in the churches, and in “the other places of assembly of the people,” Harrison wrote, “let there be expressions of gratitude to Divine Providence for the devout faith of the discoverer.”

Jacob’s response to the document was deeply revealing. “The first thing that jumps out,” he noted, “is that Columbus is a pioneer of ‘progress and enlightenment.’ ” But Jacob had his own opinion: “From what I’ve learned, his goals were not entirely noble. Just get rich, whatever; … he claimed to be a true Christian, but he also captured and tortured Indians, so he wasn’t maybe as noble as this is having him be.”

This response, typical among the group of AP students we interviewed, is in many ways ideal. Jacob marshaled background knowledge about Columbus and worked his way toward the Bloomian peak, eventually challenging President Harrison’s praise for Columbus with his own critical alternative. His response, though unpolished and in need of elaboration, seems like critical thinking. And that’s how the teachers we interviewed generally saw it. Nice job, Jacob.

Except when they give the document to history graduate students, something really interesting happens:

But then we asked a group of history graduate students what they saw in the document. And they saw something totally different. To them, the document wasn’t about 1492—or even Columbus. To them, it was about immigration and voting. That threw us for a loop. Then we got it.

These graduate students had no more specialized knowledge of Columbus than Jacob or his AP history classmates. They were writing their theses on topics like French colonialism in Tunisia and the aftershocks of the Meiji Restoration. But the advantage they had was the ability to think historically about the documents.

From the start, it was clear what the young historians were doing differently. As one began his reading: “OK, it’s 1892.”

Our high school student Jacob knew the story of Columbus. But he didn’t know how to read a document as the product of a particular time and place. To the historians, critical thinking didn’t mean assembling facts and passing judgment; it meant determining what questions to ask in order to generate new knowledge.

Here’s the thing — the graduate students knew less about American history than Jacob, but they knew how to read historical documents. And it turns out that in this instance (and really most instances as far as I can make out) having historical skill is more important than having historical knowledge — even when that historical knowledge is directly relevant to the task at hand.

I really cannot overstate how important this is. It is one of the fundamental realizations underlying the restructuring of Keene State’s general education program. It’s not a new realization.

But although we had the research to show we were right in what we did, we didn’t have the perfect story to explain it. Until now.

(thanks to @jonmott who tweeted this link out…)