06/17/2011 03:36 pm ET | Updated Aug 16, 2011

Love Loses: Barnes and Noble's Big Fat Bell Book Fail

If you happened to have read John Wins: When Rob Bell's Editor Calls, you know I'm thinking about doing a book with an actual, real book publisher. I'm a little hesitant about doing that because, as we all know, the e-book revolution has been unto the book publishing industry what the CD was to cassette tapes. And this player knows there's no rewind button on history. For me, it's fast-forward all the way, until I've crossed the tape into the record books.

And that, my friends, is exactly the kind of high-wire metaphorical artistry that moves the likes of famous authors and big-deal book publishers to often totally think about responding to my calls, emails, letters, instant messages, and attempts to catch them on Skype.

Troubled times or not, there are still some outstanding reasons to take the route of the traditional book publishing. One is that there are, after all, still a lot of open bookstores out there. And I am confident that big bookstore chains like Barnes and Noble are vigorously buttressing themselves against the onslaught of challenges to their retail model now being leveled at them by the rise of the e-book.

Right? Wouldn't you think Barnes and Noble would be on their game right now?

Well, they are. But only if their game is Battleship Down.

Yesterday I visited my local gymnasium-size Barnes and Noble. And, as is my wont, I wonderingly and non-wantonly wandered over to the Christian book section, so that I could see what's happening with all my Christian book author buds who also never call me but whatever.

And there I saw that on the shelf next to one copy each of Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis and Sex God were no copies of Rob's mega-bestselling smash sensation book Love Wins.

Huh? How could they not have Love Wins on the shelf?

Rob Bell's my best friend. We go back weeks. And friends take care of friends. So off I went to the big round info desk situated in the middle of the store like the bridge deck for the Barnes and Noble Enterprise.

Employees buzzed around back there like bees in a hive. But despite first impressions they didn't seem to actually be worker bees, since they almost determinedly refrained from directly assisting we few who were trying to access the sweet deliciousness of their books.

Finally one of them waved me over to a computer. What luck! She was a queen bee: she had strapped to her head the Madonna/helicopter pilot headset, and clipped to her belt was a squawking walkie-talkie that would have been the pride of any socially maladjusted, authority-crazed mall cop.

"Can I help you?" she said.

Having heard what I was looking for, she typed away for a moment before pausing. She repeated the ol' type-pause-type cycle a few times, before looking up to ask me, "What was the title again?"

"Love Wins. By Rob Bell."

"That's the whole title? Love Wins?"

I had a fleeting idea that maybe she really worked at the Starbucks next door, and just happened to wander behind the counter in search of a novelty key chain or $6.99 blank book.

"Yes, Love Wins. By Rob Bell." I made sure to tamp down the mania that I could feel rising in me like a werewolf during full moon. "It's one of the bestselling books in the country."

"Oh, I know. I've heard of it." She peered into her screen like it was showing the answer to life in print too small to read.

"Jay Bell, right?"

"No, Rob Bell. Love Wins, by Rob Bell." Always attuned to the possibility of in fairly short order getting arrested, I practically whispered, "It's been one of the bestselling books in the country for about two months. It was on the cover of Time."

"Oh, I know about the book," she said. She stared back into her computer. "What was it again? Bell?"

I wondered if perhaps this was all an elaborate prank. Maybe I was being punked, or was an unwitting guest on some new reality TV-show called, like, Try to Buy a Book! or Employee or Not?

"Yes, it's Bell. Rob Bell." The beard stubble under my jawbone needed scratching.

After long enough for me to write my own book, she said, "Ah. There it is. I'm showing here that we've got lots of copies." She looked proud to have proven herself the efficient, competent, take-charge sort of employee that I could only guess she'd somehow deluded herself she was.

"Great to know!" said I.

"They're on a space on one of our display tables." She briskly headed out onto the floor, taking as she went a call from an in-store underling whom I imagined in the men's bathroom with his head stuck behind the toilet, or maybe in some far corner of the store, stepping in place, unaware that the key to his freedom lay in simply turning around.

My guide stopped at one amongst a sea of identical round display tables packed with books. "Here we are," she said. She pointed downward to five or six stacked copies of Love Wins."Is there anything else I can help you with?"

"No, this is great. Thank you." After she'd started away, I said, "Excuse me." She turned back, regarding me with an expression that said, "Isn't it awesome how my cute looks and professional manner keep you from seeing how much you're interfering with my work schedule?"

"Yes?" she said, walking back toward me.

"Could you -- I mean, I'd be happy to do it myself -- put a couple of these on the shelf in the Christian book section, next to his other books?"

She managed to look at once perplexed and blank. "But they go here on this table."

"And they look great here! But I was thinking that maybe one or two copies should also go on the shelf. That's where people would look for them, isn't it? Under B? For Bell? Where you have copies of his other two books?"

"But these books are supposed to be here," she said. "This is where we go to find them." My chest began itching.

"But that works great for you, because you're an employee here. So you know they're here. But for someone like me, who's not an employee, I wouldn't know to look out here. I'm just someone off the street who wants to buy a copy of this book for my wife. So what I'm going to do, is look for the book on the shelves. And if I don't see any of them there, then I'll probably figure you're out of that book, and then maybe just leave. And that's no good, right? Because then maybe you'll miss out on that sale?"

After carefully cogitating upon the variables in my complex scenario I was suggesting, she cocked one hip, and said, "You know, you do kind of have a point there."

"So should I go ahead and put at least one of these copies on the shelf?"

"Tell you what. Why don't you let me take that up with the district manager? Because we really should have a book over there, right?"

"Right," I said. "Definitely."

"I'm going to suggest it. It's a good idea. Is there anything else I can help you with?"

I thanked her and said no, I was fine. And then she turned away, off to not solve some other problem.

I hung around the store a bit -- and then, unobserved, sneaked two copies of Rob's books onto the shelf where they belonged.

Later that afternoon I bought a copy of Love Wins. It's now on my wife's Kindle.


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