In the Shadow of the Giants

Endangered booksellers are struggling to master the art of survival

| September-October 1997

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.

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