Boxes or Books

Encounter at Barnes and Noble Book Store

January 25, 2013

As I waited at the cash register to pay for my book, Love in the Time of Algorithms, I was caught off guard by the lovely Muna who asked for my payment with a bright smile: “Your total investment today in your health and happiness is $20.53.” “What a lovely way to ask for payment,” I said.

When we have an exchange of any kind in the marketplace, shouldn’t it always be viewed as an investment for both parties of the exchange? And ‘investment” seems to be exactly the correct word to characterize the essence of such exchanges because it connotes a margin of risk for both parties of the exchange. There can be no guarantee of absolute satisfaction for either party.

My investment in this book closed the last link in a long chain of conditional bets (called Bayesian statistics in math). I bet $20.53 plus time and car expense to go to the book store, find the book, buy it, and return home. I also invested a chunk of my personal time to read the book as a bet that I MIGHT enjoy the book. The book store bet that I MIGHT come back to their store because they MIGHT have a book I like, and I if I come back again, I MIGHT buy another one. The publisher of the book is betting that the book store MIGHT order more books by that author. That author is betting that I MIGHT buy more books written by him, and MIGHT recommend to others who MIGHT also buy and MIGHT enjoy this book. Nine Bayesian “if then” bets.

The lifeline of all such investment chains for the Barns and Noble Book Store of Reston will be broken by the middle of February next month. The store lies on its side like a fallen dinosaur dying slowly as investors like me pump fresh capital into it by feeding on its dwindling inventory books hoping in vain to bring it back to life.

A container store will take its place in this friendly neighborhood shopping area next to a handful of other investment salons like Starbucks, Best Buy Electronics, restaurants, banks, and other retailers for everyday needs—a new store that sells empty boxes. It seems odd to me that a store that sells its empty boxes for us to fill is replacing a store that empties its full boxes to sell us knowledge and imagination.

I wonder how our daily return-on-investments MIGHT change with our bookstore gone?

Post Script May 27, 2013: I recently learned that the entire little retail shopping square in Reston, VA will be gone in two years and replaced by high rise condos as all the leases run out because a new metro stop is on the way. Boxes for people are replacing boxes for stuff for people. People will now have to use their i-browser to buy stuff virtually instead of using their “I” to browse in person. ROI?

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