In the Shadow of the Giants

Endangered booksellers are struggling to master the art of survival

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Forget the issue of whether people are actually reading more. The real question is this: Where do you buy your books? When Nation publisher Victor Navasky admitted a few years ago in the pages of The New York Times that he got most of his at Barnes & Noble, he caused an uproar among the literati that raged for weeks. An intellectual patronizing a bookstore chain? The debate has shifted slightly in the short time since he wrote, if only because the superstore chains in one guise or another (Barnes & Noble, Borders, Crown Books, Books-A-Million) have proliferated since then, and traditional bookselling venues—independently owned bookshops—have become less numerous. Fierce jostling for store space characterizes the retail end of the business, and this despite a dropoff in book sales since last year, following four years of rapid growth.

Though liking the superstores is still a dirty secret in many circles, finding other places to shop becomes harder and harder to do. Sales at large chains now account for 25.6 percent of the books sold in this country, with 18.6 percent credited to the independents and small chains, according to the Book Industry Study Group. The shift has been so steady and precipitous that the little guys have lately earned the epithet “endangered.”

For bibliophiles, of course, there should be nothing more appealing than coming across a bookstore every few blocks. But this is not the case. People are anxious about the superstores fulfilling their “category killer” designation. They are concerned about the biggest chains fighting each other to the death, until only one is left and just a scant handful of powerful buyers will prevail, deciding from one central location what books will be stocked each season on bookstore shelves throughout the country. The stores will be filled only with best-sellers (a category description rather than an indication of sales), celebrity bios, and self-improvement books. Any semblance of literature will be a thing of the past.

Will the future really be as bleak as this worst-case scenario? It’s a picture that pops up in conversation after conversation with independent booksellers around the country. The possibility that this could happen is palpable to them, as it is to the larger community that continues to read books and celebrate the diversity that has been the hallmark of America’s publishing history. The fear is so real that a few communities thus far untouched by Borders, Barnes & Noble, and the other chains have risen up to fight back the uninvited giants. On the surface, the protests have been about other issues—traffic congestion, historic preservation, environmental endangerment—but the subtext in each case is about what is seen as a frightening trend toward cultural homogenization and intellectual impoverishment, and the losses that follow in their wake.

In an ongoing struggle, three thousand people in the beach town of Capitola, California, outside Santa Cruz, protested a developer’s intention to sign up the Michigan-based Borders chain (with 157 stores in the U.S.) for a creekside shopping mall. They cited environmental and traffic worries. In Davis, California, concerned residents formed Friends of Davis when it became known earlier this year that Borders had signed a 15-year lease for a 22,000-square-foot store in a new development on university-owned land at the entrance to town. The project, they say, jeopardizes traffic flow and, inevitably, the economic stability of the town’s 10 established bookstores. According to John Hamilton, who immediately announced his intention to move his 3,000-square foot Next Chapter out of town to another location, “Superstores look for markets that are already there and then eat them up. Borders opens up in college towns, indoctrinates students as to what a bookstore is so they won’t know what an independent can be.”

In Lawrence, Kansas, where an unwanted outpost of the Wild Oats Community Market was beaten out of town in 1996, residents fought against Borders as well when the chain signed a lease to move to a genteel stretch of the downtown area. The group, Citizens for Our Historic Downtown, has joined forces with the protestors in Davis and the Philadelphia branch of the Industrial Workers of the World, which had its own much-publicized run-in with Borders last year, to form the Borders Patrol. The coalition wants Borders to respect the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively; respect community wishes and standards; and carry more titles from small, independent presses without asking the presses to pay for returns when returns are forthcoming. The third item reflects the group’s long-range desire to protect books and writers.

“Certainly we’re concerned about community concerns as we’re coming in, but, we’re concerned about everybody in the community,” says Borders spokesperson Jody Kohn. “There are lots of people who can't wait for us to get there.”

The real fight for independents—to keep customers once the competition moves in—is much, much tougher than the individual battles to keep the stores out. “As soon as we come up with a successful innovation, the chains copy it,” says the veteran independent Larry Robin, of Robin’s in Philadelphia. A bookshop owner in the same center city location for 36 years (the store has been there for 60), Robin has been forced to add a decaying city core to his business problems. And yet, he says, there’s nothing he’d rather be doing than selling books. “We’re dealing with ideas. It’s not socks. What we do is important, even if it’s not appreciated.” Passions like this go a long way toward explaining why independent booksellers are seen as front-line warriors not only against the superstore barbarians, but also against price-club discounters, home shopping channel purveyors, niche outlets ranging from hardware to cookware to house wares to pets, and now online pie-in-the-skyers who promise any book any time on just about any subject at discounts that have even Barnes & Noble scrambling. Many booksellers simply don’t survive. The American Booksellers Association’s tally of member stores that folded from mid-1993 through early 1997 stands at close to 200. The names are mostly quaint and dreamy: Book Nook, Books First, Novel Futures, Volume One, Shakespeare & Co., Books & Co., Salt of the Earth, Once Upon a Mind, Really Neat Books.

To survive in this climate takes nerve and skill, and those who do it—Powell’s in Portland; Tattered Cover in Denver; Book Passages in Corte Madera, California; Elliot Bay Books in Seattle; Just Books in Greenwich, Connecticut; The Hungry Mind in St. Paul, Minnesota—do it with a vengeance, giving their customers what bookseller William Kramer of the Washington, D.C., independent Kramer Books & Afterwords terms life experiences, not just consumer experiences.

Hungry Mind owner David Unowsky, who says he built his business in preparation for this sort of competition, includes among his offensive tactics more service, more author events, more bargains. “We do specialized market niches, community outreach, out-of-store events, author series, discounts,” Unowsky says. “When a Barnes &Noble moved in two blocks away, we picked 25 books each month, called them The Hungry Mind 25, discounted them at 25 percent. Trying to be like the chains, we’ll lose, because they can out-discount and out-advertise us. The chains are better at celebrity events. We do literary authors. No one has a poetry section like ours. We specialize in books for the helping professions, selling at conferences on death and dying, social work. This is a very important part of our business. We do two conferences a week, send someone with books. It results in solid sales plus publicity that money can’t buy. We cement ties with the community that chains can’t do.”

Elsewhere, storeowners cite newsletters, signings, performances, children’s events, reading groups, community centers, greater depth of inventory, a focus on regional authors, smarter staff, anything that will make them indispensable without distorting their first mission—getting books into people’s hands.

Many of the forward-thinking independents are giving the online world a shot. At this point, many view online selling as a way to expand service to existing customers rather than as a way to attract new ones. Here too passion may be a survival tool. The San Francisco based Booksmith, a 4,000-square-foot store insulated from the brunt of superstore competition by its location in the strongly individualistic Haight-Ashbury district, admits to deriving good value from its cyberstore. Web manager Thomas Gladysz spends full time on the site, posting information about the business and devising interest-group clusters that catch his fancy. Of the hundred or so pages he has devised, one is devoted to Polish fiction, another to signed books, and another to “flapper fiction.” Gladysz cultivates alliances with other websites as well, providing book resources for elder care and child care groups and for writer Kathy Acker, who lives in the neighborhood. “People come to the store and say, ‘I saw it on your website.’ That means they’re using the web to preshop. I wouldn’t have expected that,” he says. “You don’t make a ton of money, but it helps with sales, publicity, and marketing.”

The rare newcomer is greeted by gratitude mixed with incredulity. Kerry Slattery, manager of the fledgling Skylight Books, a 2,000-square-foot literary store in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles, says customers ask, “You’re just selling books?” The store is owned by a group of 10, including some actors and an acting teacher who owns the building. “We don’t want to be all things to all people,” Slattery says. “We want to make our departments deeper and smarter.”

How to translate that commitment into retail terms is the task that the independents face every day of their work lives. Dan Cullen, editor of the trade magazine American Bookseller, recently advised indies to consider themselves personal information managers rather than tradespeople. In his view, the true role for the bookstore of the future, and the key to its survival, is as a source of continuous, in-depth, one-on-one dialogue with its customers. In this vision of bookseller as social director, stores must reach out via e-mail, the web, customer databases, and whatever other resources they can cultivate to discover what valued customers want to read and whether they’d like to meet other people interested in the same subjects. With 50,000 titles published annually in the United States, we need help moving through the thicket from a partner who cares enough to keep our intellectual and other needs in mind, someone whose job is to serve us. We have money managers for our money—why not information managers for our minds? Stranger things have been dreamed of.