Men’s Nook: Not in the Kid’s Section

by Chuck Ross on January 29, 2011

My brother posted this on Facebook after an incident at the Preston and Park Barnes and Noble in Plano, Texas. He was shopping with his pregnant wife and her parents. I wrote this piece at my local B&N, using their complimentary wi-fi, drinking loads of their water, and browsing books that I have no intention of buying at their store. Doing my part. Here is my brother:

Tonight I was at BN trying to find a place to sit to look at my books. Of course I couldn’t find a seat because the two measly sofa chairs they used to have are gone, the handful of wooden chairs were taken, and people were having to sit in the aisles like hobos. I wasn’t gonna sit on the ground and was determined to find a seat, and the only one I could see was at a table in the kid’s section. As I was walking into the kid’s section the lady who was working that area asked me in a snarky way “can I help you find something.” I said “no I’m fine” and then strolled over to the reading area and sat down. Before I even opened my book the lady followed me to where I was sitting and told me that the section was only for kids and parents. I told her that there was nowhere else to sit and she advised me to go over to the music section. I rolled my eyes and just walked into the music section where my book tripped the area’s merchandise sensor. After cooling off for a minute I told [my wife] about it all and she went and complained to the manager. The manager told her that they don’t let single men in that section because they have had complaints about men leering at children. Right after I was kicked out I was somewhat pissed, but after what [my wife] told me I was furious. She was basically saying that the reason I was kicked out of the kid’s section is that I was suspected of being in there to leer at little kids and not for the perfectly reasonable and more likely reason that I was trying to find a fucking place to sit down. Like I said, I’m never going back.

Both my brother and I followed up with Barnes and Noble in different capacities to figure out their policy’s genesis and its true intent. My brother went back to the store to speak personally with a manager, and I contacted the corporate office to determine where this policy originated. My brother didn’t speak with the general manager, but he spoke with an assistant who told him that he was asked to leave the section because of limited space and that if he wanted to go in that area again he should have a child with him. Which will be difficult since my sister-in-law is only due to give birth in a few months.

Taking a bit of an activist stance, I contacted Barnes and Nobles’ corporate headquarters and spoke with a customer service representative. I told the rep the story of what happened and wanted to know if the policy to prevent either single men or people without children from sitting in the kid’s section was a company policy or store policy. The rep said that she would research it and get back to me. Corporate did not get back to me; instead, they apparently contacted the general manager of the Preston and Park store and emailed me with an apology which she asked me to pass along to my brother.

In email correspondence, the store manager insisted that the issue at hand was not one of discrimination against single men but rather a concern over space so that “children [can] have every opportunity to develop the love and habits of reading that will keep our business viable in the future.”

Barnes and Noble could afford such a stance because they’d already hooked my brother on the stuff so they could afford to demean him and tacitly accuse him of pedophilia. It is important to remember one thing from my brother’s posting: he was both immediately confronted by a female employee and told by an assistant manager that the policy was implemented because there had been reports of men leering at children. My brother was told that individuals had been caught in the kid’s section doing lewd things: apparently a man had acted inappropriately, some kids had left a “Playboy” magazine, and a couple of lesbians were found looking at graphic books.

Albeit not nearly as systematic or disturbing, this case is similar to one in which British Airways maintained a policy of separating adult men from lone children on their flights in order to protect kids from pedophiles. Lawyers, professionals, fathers, and even the current mayor of London were vilified under the auspices of child safety.

Perhaps there was miscommunication between the general manager and the assistant/employees about the nature of the “parents and children” only policy. But it is important to think through workforce dynamics and to keep the British Airways policy in mind in order to gain a better understanding of what happened. The assistant manager my brother spoke with got the idea that single men were prohibited from the kid’s section from somewhere. People, especially those with managerial responsibility, don’t spout off speculation like that without some basis in truth. It could be that the truth was rooted more in internal speculation rather that explicit store/district/company policy, but if the culture of that store/district/company is such that a manager thinks that the kid’s section is in danger of being infiltrated by perverted men, then that store is practicing de facto discrimination and profiling.

My brother had been told by someone at the store that the kid’s section policy was handed down from the district office. I contacted the district manager to confirm this and find out why such a policy would exist and who implemented it. I spoke with district manager Jerry Warren who told me that there was no such policy and that he hadn’t heard anything about it. If anything, it seems that Barnes and Noble is unable to get their story straight.

There are a few other salient facts worth mentioning:

  • My brother has spent thousands of dollars at Barnes & Noble while none of the children have spent a dime.
  • My brother’s wife has shopped in the children’s section by herself on numerous occasions – even before she was pregnant – without a hitch. She is a kindergarten teacher (tangentially, my sister-in-law has a male peer who she says is a wonderful teacher who is loved by his young students, but he is forced to deal with parents who don’t want their children in his class because he is a man).
  • Several months ago my brother and his wife sat childless in the kid’s section and were not bothered. Also in the section, an adult book club was holding a meeting. The policy guarding the limited space of the kid’s section was apparently not in effect at that time.

Here is a more metaphysical discussion of this incident. Laws have been enacted which prevent discrimination against customers on the basis of race, gender, religion, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Unless one set of customers pays an extra fee for access – like the VIP section at a concert or front court seats at a Lakers game – a business can’t cordon off parts of a store that certain customers can’t enter.

It also seems that in the tug-of-war between established, adult, male customers and children, Barnes and Noble has sided with children. Assuming that all men will stand fast behind their white shields, companies like Barnes and Noble – no, society in general – have decided to discount the integrity and buying power of men. The company is operating off of old models which considered men’s demand to be highly inelastic and, thus, not worth considering. “Men will buy whatever we sell them – however we sell it.” Such an attitude, which is inherited from the concept of male disposability, has made non-men the most highly sought after customers. It seems that “women and children first” extends beyond sinking ships and house fires. Let’s see if the thousands of men who read this post allow kiddies and their mums a wide enough berth to explore their pop-up books by completely boycotting Barnes and Noble or at least marginally thinking twice about shopping there. $14.95 adds up here and there.

Then there is the age-old issue of parental responsibility.  From a pragmatic view, it is unnecessary to enact a policy that polices lone men in the kid’s section if parents are watching over their children. It is possible that shenanigans could take place in that section, but this is also possible in most settings outside the store’s doors. If I had a kid and saw a man exposing himself near my child I would rip his head (or both) right off. Of course, this is a big if: there are only a handful of cases of such behavior. To prepare for an insane man touching himself or propositioning children in the kid’s book section would be to assume that every other customer is a potential mass shooter. Of course, they are more likely to be men so it might be wise to bar men from entering the store altogether.

I post this to make an example of Barnes and Noble. The time is coming when men will not stand for being considered criminals and being treated as such. Barnes and Noble shouldn’t worry too much because that time is still a little ways off. At least for now, most men won’t heed the call, and the bookseller does have their Nook. But I have a nook too; it’s a really good place to read my Kindle.

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