The ‘Rustic Apple Tart’ (Can Barnes and Noble Survive?)

apple tart
I love it that the apple tart sold in the Barnes and Noble cafes is called the Rustic Apple Tart.

I also love (unfortunately) the tart itself, in a love-hate kind of way. It’s a soulless glop of industrial sugar-goo that delivers a Mike Tyson body blow of 390 calories. Deciding to ingest the thing requires an odd mix of indulgence and self-loathing.

Once consumed, it delivers the eater into a dull, narcotic fullness. Your feeling of disappointment (I just ate that?) is steamrolled by the gelatinous volume resting in your gut.

And again, the name: Rustic Apple Tart.

That name is a work of fiction as imaginative as any novel that sits on the bookstore’s shelves. “Rustic”? These gloppy tarts must be cranked out by the carton-load by a large commercial bakery. They probably spend days on large trucks as they’re shipped to BN’s many locations.

But I don’t want to think about that – no, it’s not just a mound of industro-jelly. Really, I tell myself, it’s a rustic tart made by an old-fashioned baker….

[Cue the fairy dust music…the screen gets all wavy…we travel to a new dimension…]

Yes, I bite into the Rustic Apple Tart and its roughhewn charm bedazzles me. Rustic is indeed the word. Subtle flavors, redolent of a warm breeze on a clear Vermont afternoon. An autumnal sweetness, a touch of golden, sun-loved honey. The very taste transports me….

The men around these parts can be gruff, they favor plaid flannel and untamed facial hair. And the women? They know how to tan leather and make a fine pie, and they’re sturdy. They save pieces of string in small woolen bags; there may be a good use for them later.

The children play with simple wooden toys, and like to engage in spirited horseplay after school. They’re wholesome and red-cheeked and have names like Samuel and Virginia and Charles….

[Again the fairy dust music tinkle…with a reluctant sigh we return to reality….]

But It’s Not Just the Tart That’s Rustic

The Rustic Tart is easy to lampoon, but my fondness for it is sincere at one level. They’re part of my afternoons at Barnes and Noble, which is my treasured home away from home. I’ve spent some sweet Saturday afternoons there.

But here’s the problem: BN is clearly imperiled. It’s threatened by Amazon, which now sells one out of every two books in America. And it’s threatened by its own business stumbles; it’s losing money amid sales declines in an otherwise strong economy.

In short, Barnes and Noble itself seems “rustic,” as if it’s a relic of an earlier era. I hope I’m wrong about that. It’d be heartbreaking if BN’s 600 stores nationwide were to close. Big chunks of the US would have no bookstore.

And sure, I like indie book shops – and they’re growing, which is fantastic news. Independent book shops are usually intimate, literary affairs, with clerks who love books. Indie booksellers look at BN and see a soulless warehouse of books – with some justification.

BN is like the Rustic Apple Tart of bookstores: big, with an empty, mass-produced feel.

But for me, my local Barnes and Noble is a place to be. It’s my second living room. It’s large enough so I can hang out there. Peruse all the new titles, browse the magazines, sit and read, work on my laptop. I typically come home with a new book.

Indie shops are typically small, even cramped, and aren’t hospitable to hanging out like the capacious BN. Nor do they have all the new books and magazines; BN’s freshly stocked shelves/tables provides the big picture.

So here’s hoping that BN survives. If I were its CEO, I’d make it a hub for book events, boost the readings, turn it into community hotspot – use that big space to host people (that is, shoppers). In the mean time, I’ll support BN by continuing to buy those delicious, homemade Rustic Apple Tarts.

On an optimistic note, the book industry continues to survive. There’s no sales juggernaut, but this chart suggests there’s room for numerous retailers. (Not to mention authors…)

Current and forecast global book publishing revenue. Source: Statistica