CLOSE
Original image
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

14 Page-Turning Facts About Barnes & Noble

Original image
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

No matter how affordable and convenient e-book readers have become, there’s still nothing quite like strolling through the aisles of a well-stocked bookstore and flipping pages.

If that’s your idea of a solid afternoon, you’re not alone. Despite panic over digital sales being the demise of musty-smelling books, e-sales have declined 10 percent this year and publishers are increasing warehouse space to make room for tangible titles.

That’s excellent news for Barnes & Noble, the most recognizable brick and mortar bookseller: the company has stores in every state, selling 203 million titles every year. Here are some margin notes on their past, present, and future:

1. THEY STARTED WITH SCHOOL BOOKS.

Charles Montgomery Barnes decided to open a bookstore in Wheaton, Illinois in 1873. A nearby college and public school created demand for textbooks, which could be easily restocked thanks to freshly-laid railroads. Barnes’ son, William, took over in 1902 before moving to New York City in 1917 and partnering with fellow bookseller Gilbert Clifford Noble. By 1932, their flagship Barnes & Noble store on Fifth Avenue was selling books of all kinds, though in a somewhat peculiar manner.

2. THEY PIONEERED THE USE OF “BOOK-A-TERIAS.”

Long before the McDonald brothers imagined an assembly line for hamburgers, Barnes and Noble used their New York store to experiment with a revolutionary new layout. Customers in the 1940s would approach an employee who filled out a sales slip; another clerk would package the book; a third would handle the money to complete the transaction. While expedient, the cafeteria-like flow and awkward division of labor never caught on.

3. THEY WERE ONE OF THE FIRST STORES TO PIPE IN MUZAK.

Muzak, the branded term for the serene instrumental sounds heard in retail outlets, was started in the 1920s by the Wired Radio Company of Cleveland, Ohio. Purporting to have scientifically-arranged scores to maximize the soothed moods of consumers, the business moved to New York in 1936. Barnes & Noble became an early adopter in 1940, installing an elaborate speaker system that offered music, sports updates, and news. The tunes were also meant to offset employee fatigue by playing faster beats at regular intervals.

4. A COLLEGE DROPOUT WOUND UP BUYING THEM OUT.

By the 1960s, Barnes & Noble had outlived its namesakes and began to entertain offers from buyers. Leonard Riggio was a part-time college student at New York University who worked at the campus bookstore and was frustrated to discover he wouldn’t be allowed to oversee its operation. He dropped out and opened a competing store, the Student Book Exchange, in Greenwich Village in 1965. The business grew so successful that he was able to purchase Barnes & Noble’s flagship (and only) store in 1971 for $1.2 million.   

5. THEY SOLD BOOKS TO PEOPLE WHO DIDN’T WANT TO READ THEM.

Not that they couldn’t read—they just preferred not to. When Riggio opened an 80,000 square foot annex near his Fifth Avenue location in 1975, closeout books were sometimes sold by the pound. This generic approach filled a need for customers who wanted books to fill shelf space in their homes, effectively making them a decorative item. Buyers who loaded up were even granted use of grocery-style shopping carts.

6. THE STORE WANTED PEOPLE TO LOITER.

Elvert Barnes, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

While newsstands didn’t take kindly to people reading without purchasing, Barnes & Noble was an early advocate of letting customers stretch out and relax a bit. Riggio found the sales annex so large that it was easy to install benches, telephone booths, and bathrooms, making it easier for people to linger. Although he received criticism from people thinking his stores would become glorified rest stops, Riggio was right: People would browse longer if you let them pee. He later added armchairs, coffee, and cooking demonstrations.  

7. THEY GOT ONLINE LONG BEFORE AMAZON.

Blood was drawn early and often when Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com vied for e-commerce dominance in the late 1990s: the latter even sued the former for claiming to be “Earth’s biggest bookstore.” While Amazon got the brunt of compliments for their pioneering Internet venture, they weren’t first out of the gate. In the 1980s, Barnes & Noble tested the viability of selling books via an online service called Trintex. An electronic shopping interface funded by IBM and Sears, Trintex worked on personal computers and allowed subscribers to shop online. The service later became known as Prodigy.  

8. THEY WERE THE FIRST BOOKSTORE TO ADVERTISE ON TV.

In 1974, the bookstore hired ad agency Geers, DuBois to produce television spots for the New York market, a first for the industry. Their tag line—“Of course, of course”—became a minor sensation in its time. Because the brand was still growing, however, Barnes & Noble wasn't able to be billed for a lot of money. When Riggio acquired the B. Dalton chain in 1987, he turned over their substantial $9 million advertising account to the agency as a way of rewarding them for their work.

9. THEY TURNED DOWN TOM HANKS.

In Hanks’ 1998 film You’ve Got Mail, an employee of a major bookstore chain falls in love with an independent proprietor (Meg Ryan) whose store he happens to be pushing out of business. Director Nora Ephron wanted to use Barnes & Noble as the monolithic company but despite the high profile product placement, Riggio turned her down. The plot may have hit too close too home: in 1996, the mega-store’s presence smothered the smaller Shakespeare and Company shop on the Upper West Side.

10. YOU CAN READ ANY NOOK E-BOOK FOR FREE. (JUST NOT FOR LONG.)

While relaxing in stores with a book and cappuccino was previously an analog experience, the company’s Nook e-reader offers an interesting twist: in-store shoppers can read any book available on the format, for free, for up to one hour per day to assess their interest.  

11. THEY WANT TO SELL YOU TOYS.

Go into any Barnes & Noble and you’re likely to see an elaborate display of toys—everything from action figures to LEGO sets. With actual toy stores dwindling in number, the bookseller believes it can steal some of that market share by becoming a destination for plastic trinkets. Sales of playthings rose 20 percent in 2014, an increase that company retail group head Mitchell Klipper believes is due to a familial atmosphere. “You don’t see anybody going to Bed, Bath & Beyond curling up with a blender,” he told Bloomberg.

12. THEY USED TO HAVE A STORE INSIDE AN OLD MOVIE PALACE.

uff-da, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

While most of the company’s storefronts stick with the traditional green template, Rochester, Minnesota’s Chateau Theater was a pretty opulent exception: a movie theater that opened in 1927 and was converted into a bookstore in the 1980s. (The marquee stayed intact.) Barnes & Noble left the building after its lease expired in late 2014, setting the stage for the city to buy it back the following year.  

13. THEY BANNED COMIC BOOKS.

Irate that DC Comics parent company Warner Bros. made a series of comic book collections available exclusively on Amazon’s Kindle device, Barnes & Noble pulled more than 100 DC titles from their inventory in 2011. Writer Neil Gaiman observed that the move basically gave Amazon the print exclusive to those titles, as well.

14.  THEY’RE COUNTING ON PLASTIC BAGS.

Tired of those plain cardboard boxes Amazon keeps shipping you? Barnes & Noble thinks you are. The company unveiled a stylish plastic shopping bag earlier this year that it hopes will entice customers into visiting a real-world bookstore. What’s the appeal? The bags were designed by Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv and feature iconic images (Ishmael’s white whale, the Wicked Witch) in a composition with text. The expectation is that shoppers will re-use the bags to broadcast their status as literate shoppers in the same way Tiffany’s bags are often recycled. 

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

Original image
iStock
Sponsor Content: BarkBox
arrow
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
Original image
iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES