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The Barnes & Noble in Baton Rouge 

Being illiterate is the only qualification for getting a job at a chain bookstore in most places, but in Baton Rouge they've added indolence and dim wits. It's not much of a reading town, so the locals seem content to get their Harry Potters and Idiot Guides there. But if you actually need a serious book, chances are nobody there has heard of it, even if it's mis-shelved somewhere in the store. You can find, for instance, a biography of Queen Elizabeth the First, titled Elizabeth Rex, filed alphabetically under "R" on the biography shelf. "Rex" being her last name, according to Barnes & Noble.

However, this is personal. Authors all over the country are herded into these warehouses by their publishers to sign and read their new books. It's a bad deal all around. Authors, some of whom might get paid for lecturing or reading in the area, perform gratis. Publishers pay for posters and promotions that draw a handful of the curious, who listen for a bit, then wander off to buy Harry Potter. The stores treat writers as a nuisance, a bit like traveling salesmen displaying samples at a mall. Readings are set up in awkward areas of the store, subject to the din of cash registers, the banter of clerks (usually about something they've seen on TV), and the passing conversations of teenagers meeting perverts in the magazine section. At the end of one these painful events, the author usually feels degraded and useless and swears never to do this sort of thing again -- until the next book.

Writers have been waxing indignant about the chains and bemoaning the destruction of independent bookstores by these godzillas of indifference, but few of them are principled enough to stay away. I, for one. Going against my better judgment, I let my publisher set me up for one of these events in Baton Rouge. I went on local radio and TV and let folks know that'd I'd be reading from my book at the megastore. Nobody is a prophet in one's own bailiwick, but I expected that the person B&N pays to produce these exercises in embarrassment might be on the ball. So I get there and they've piled up a table with my book near the escalator and there isn't even a chair to sit on. People are milling around, waiting for me to read. Only there is going to be no reading, just a "signing," which means that the crowd has been transformed from an audience to a herd of cattle with credit cards. When I protested, the store manager moved her lips (the way she reads too, no doubt) to say that she knew nothing about any "reading," and that putting up a few chairs for the would-be listeners would be too much trouble. Meanwhile, idle young employees who might have moved a few chairs, slumped dimly around the store, terrified that they might be asked to do something, like find a book.

I've heard this kind of story from writers and readers all around the country. The Baton Rouge franchise may be a little ahead of the rest in its dedication to incompetence, but eventually something is going to give. My prediction: Barnes & Noble is going down. Sell your stock.

The book not read by Andrei Codrescu at Barnes & Noble is Casanova in Bohemia, available at independent bookstores.

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