So part 1 of an informal survey of thestate of Science-Fiction and Fantasy at retail was a downer. By comparison, I decided to go to a Half Price Books over the weekend for a comparison.
Now, Half Price Books and Barnes & Noble are two different creatures. The former is primarily a used book store while B&N is a full retail store. Both sell books, music, movies board games and, for lack of a better category, “pop culture trinkets” like Dr. Who mugs and Harley Quinn statuettes and whatnot.
The general atmosphere in the SF/F aisle couldn't be more different despite a roughly equivalent shelf space. Since there were millions of cheap Sci-Fi and Fantasy paperbacks published over the years, HPB ends up having a much richer selection available at any given time, with a large number of these books being printed in the 70s and 80s.
The first thing that stuck out was that Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were firmly entrenched within the shelf, as they should be. A whole bunch of Roger Zelazny paperbacks stood out at the end of the alphabet. Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman existed in four places: Their Dragonlance output, their fantasy collaborations, and their individual works. The rest is going to be me rattling off names of fantasy authors: C.J. Cherryh, Andre Norton, Anne McCaffrey, Alan Dean Foster, Tanith Lee, Robert Asprin, Craig Shaw Gardner, Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, Orson Scott Card's. There was only one Pratchett book at the time, but it was an early North American edition of The Colour of Magic from the 80s. Piers Anthony's Xanth series took up a whole row by itself, so if you're looking for Comic Fantasy like Anthony and Asprin's Myth books, that's where they're hiding.
This is all in addition to authors on the shelf at Barnes & Noble and the differences are remarkable. The history, the weird cover art, the oddball books standing alongside giants of the genre. There's a sense of discovery there that's missing from the other chain. One time, I picked up the entirety of the Thieves' World series for ten dollars.
So the question is why? Why is HPB better at handling Fantasy than B&N? Is it because B&N is beholden to traditional publishing and HPB is fueled by the masses bringing in their own books?
While Barnes & Noble may be among the last of its kind struggling against extinction, I don't think physical bookstores should be written off completely yet.