Archive for May, 2011

Bookselling in the Eighties 2

May 18, 2011

Cody's at night 1986In 1980  most books were still being sold in independent stores. The big chains were B. Dalton Booksellers  (later purchased by Barnes and Noble) and Waldenbooks (now owned by Borders and facing extinction). Almost all of these stores were in malls. They were small, about 2-3000 square feet. They sold commercial bestsellers by the bucket load. In the late 80s the big chains changed their strategy and started building 40,000 square feet megastores. And the little  mall stores have been declining in number and languishing  in sales since then.

These  chain stores were a lot different from  independents, and I don’t think they really were formidable competitors. They focused on highly commercial books, hardback and paperback bestsellers, genre fiction, how-to and self-help books, and  coffee table scrap books of Hollywood celebrities.  . Unlike many independents, the stores  were extremely well lit (in a sort of cold fluorescent sort of way) and they put a premium on dramatic displays of  a limited range of titles. Typical independent stores of the time were more crowded, darker, and less glitzy. Displays were pretty modest. Independents  were more concerned with their dignity and seriousness of purpose. (Although my dignity could be tested, when struggling to deal with the overused public restrooms on Telegraph Avenue).  I think that the chains had a better sense of the trends in modern design than we did. They really focused on being inviting to the average consumer. But it wasn’t clear whether they served the function of bringing culture to the masses  or  debasing culture  to the lowest common denominator.  The debate continues to this day.

 The chains pioneered the use of “dumps” (I love that word), large cardboard displays provided by publishers with 4 to 8 pockets of a single title placed face out, usually in the front of the store. When Simon and Schuster published their book on the  transcripts of the Nixon Tapes in 1997, I suggested that they create a dump with a life size cutout of Nixon looking jowly and with five o’clock shadow, pointing down to the books and saying in his inimitable style: “Buy this book, you cock shucker!” Simon and Schuster was neither impressed nor amused.

 People’s opinions of these stores varied. Some media pundits saw them as a democratizing force bringing books to a wider audience. Others saw them as an ominous sign that the barbarians were at the gates and foreshadowed  the end of civilization as we knew it. These stores were never popular in intellectually snooty Berkeley.

A lot of books were also sold in department stores and through book clubs, but these channels  were already in decline. They had always been the venues of choice for  certain types of rich old ladies with blue hair.  The giant big box retailers: Costco, Wal-mart, and Target, all of which are huge sellers of  books today, were not even on the futurists’ radars.

But big changes were afoot that would dramatically transform bookselling in the decade ahead.  In 1971 Leonard Riggio, a young recent graduate of NYU, purchased  Barnes and Noble, a  moribund New York retail book store, that had been around since the late nineteenth century.  At the time Barnes and Noble had what was probably the largest bookstore in America on Nineteenth Street in New York.  Riggio went about expanding the company regionally. He focused on opening smaller stores around Manhattan. He also began what was then a very novel marketing strategy of heavily discounting best sellers, as much as 40%. The discounted books were placed in the back of the store, a little like milk in supermarkets. In order to get to the cheap titles, the customer had to snake his way through long aisles. During the trek, one hoped,  he would be seduced by the full price titles along the way.

Further down the eastern seaboard, in Washington D. C., Robert Haft, another brash and aggressive young man with some family money behind him, was inspired by the Barnes and Noble discounting strategy and started opening his own discount stores called Crown Books. Haft’s family had built up a huge regional discount drug chain called Dart Drugs and had some experience in aggressive price cutting. The typical Crown store was a pretty shabby affair, smaller even than the mall-based chains.  Haft  liked to say that every book in the store was discounted every day. He filled the store with a very limited amount of discounted hardback and paperback bestsellers along with lots of off-price remainders. In 1979  Crown started opening stores in other cities, first in Chicago, then San Francisco and LA, and expanded from there. He never opened in New York to avoid going head to head with the only other discounter of the time, Barnes and Noble.

Haft,  developed extremely annoying ads that saturated the media to announce his openings in new markets. He would stand around stacks of best sellers and say in a grating voice that sounded like the Godfather, only two octaves higher: “Books cost too much in [name of city], so I started Crown Books. Now you’ll never have to pay full price again.”

A Crown opened less than a block from Cody’s on Telegraph Avenue. It never did very well and closed a few years later. There was also  a Waldenbooks a block north of Cody’s. It didn’t do so well either and closed in the early 90s.

5 Myths About the information Age

May 9, 2011

There is a very interesting and thoughtful article in the Chronicle for Higher Education by Robert Darnton, the university librarian at Harvard University. Darnton is something of a contrarian on matters relating to digital-mania in the world of books and culture. I like what he has to say. Here is a short version of his myths. But check out the complete article.

1. “The book is dead.”  Wrong.  More books are produced in print each year than in the previous year.

2. “We have entered the information age.”  … every age is an age of information, each in its own way and according to the media available at the time…. No one would deny that the modes of communication are changing rapidly, perhaps as rapidly as in Gutenberg’s day, but it is misleading to construe that change as unprecedented.

3. “All information is now available online.” The absurdity of this claim is obvious to anyone who has ever done research in archives…. Only a tiny fraction of archival material has ever been read, much less digitized. Most judicial decisions and legislation, both state and federal, have never appeared on the Web. The vast output of regulations and reports by public bodies remains largely inaccessible to the citizens it affects. Google estimates that 129,864,880 different books exist in the world, and it claims to have digitized 15 million of them—or about 12 percent…

4. “Libraries are obsolete.” Everywhere in the country librarians report that they have never had so many patrons. The libraries supply books, videos, and other materi­al as always, but they also are fulfilling new functions: access to information for small businesses, help with homework and afterschool activities for children, and employment information for jobs… Librarians are responding to the needs of their patrons in many new ways, notably by guiding them through the wilderness of cyberspace to relevant and reliable digital material. …While continuing to provide books in the future, they will function as nerve centers for communicating digitized information at the neighborhood level as well as on college campuses.

5. The future is digital.” True enough, but misleading. In 10, 20, or 50 years, the information environment will be overwhelmingly digital, but the prevalence of electronic communication does not mean that printed material will cease to be important. Research in the relatively new discipline of book history has demonstrated that new modes of communication do not displace old ones, at least not in the short run. Manuscript publishing actually expanded after Gutenberg and continued to thrive for the next three centuries. Radio did not destroy the newspaper; television did not kill radio; and the Internet did not make TV extinct. In each case, the information environment became richer and more complex. That is what we are experiencing in this crucial phase of transition to a dominantly digital ecology.

Darnton goes on to talk about the ways that the activity of reading is changing in the electronic age. He’s an informed and realistic optimist. We could  use a little more of that right now, when so many people (myself included) have been saying that the sky is falling.

Bookselling in the Eighties 1

May 8, 2011

me mid-1980sMost independent booksellers who have been in business for awhile will tell you that the 1980s was the golden age for the independent store. And it  most certainly was for the large independents that came to dominate the book business for a short period of time. There weren’t very many of us, and we came in many shapes and sizes. But the stores  had an immense influence on book publishing and  literary culture.  Along with Cody’s,  there was Powell’s Books in Portland and Tattered Cover in Denver. Both were huge stores even by today’s standards, each over 60,000 square feet. Closer to home, there was our sister store, Kepler’s in Silicon Valley, Bookshop Santa Cruz down the coast, and Book Passage in Marin.   

There were some smaller stores as well. Book Soup on the Sunset Strip in LA., Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City., Left Bank Books in St. Louis, City Lights in San Francisco, The Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, and Schwartz’s in Milwaukee (of all places).   It was difficult to pinpoint the qualities that made these stores so beloved and so important to our culture. They were all very different kinds of stores serving very different kinds of communities. That was, after all, what made independent stores so fascinating.  I suppose the only unifying principle that made these stores so important and such a pleasure to shop in was that they were all characterized by a kind of charismatic leadership by the  owners who had a passion for books. Somehow you just knew it when you walked in.

Book publishers like to classify their titles into “frontlist” and “backlist”. The frontlist is the expression used for new titles,  usually but not always in hardback, that have just been released. The backlist is what we call the  books that have been published for some time.  It is a little bit of a fuzzy line that determines when front list becomes backlist, but at some point, and certainly when it goes into paperback after a year,  the book becomes backlist.  Publishers love the backlist. Why shouldn’t they? Backlist books sell year after year with almost no cost to the publisher  for publicity and promotion. The editorial and acquisition costs have been fully amortized. The publisher need do no more than project sales into the future and schedule additional print runs. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is backlist. Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond is backlist. Mastering The Art of French Cooking by Julia Child is backlist. But when Knopf issued a new edition of the classic cookbook to coincide with the release of the movie, Julie and Julia, it became frontlist.

In 1980 the vast number of books that we sold were from the backlist. Not just the classics and the scholarly titles, but popular fiction, books by authors like:, Frank Herbert, Margaret Atwood, Tom Robbins,  and Isabel Allende were  evergreen titles that sold year after year.

Let’s look at the bestselling titles of 1980.

FICTION 

1. The Covenant, James A. Michener

2. The Bourne Identity, Robert Ludlum

3. Rage of Angels, Sidney Sheldon

4. Princess Daisy, Judith Krantz

5. Firestarter, Stephen King

6. The Key to Rebecca, Ken Follett

7. Random Winds, Belva Plain

8. The Devil’s Alternative, Frederick Forsyth

9. The Fifth Horseman, Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre

10. The Spike, Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss

N O N F I C T I O N

1. Crisis Investing, Douglas Casey

2. Cosmos, Carl Sagan

3. Free to Choose: A Personal Statement, Milton and Rose Friedman

4. Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient, Norman Cousins

5. Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Gay Talese

6. The Sky’s the Limit, Dr. Wayne W. Dyer

7. The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler

8. Craig Claiborne’s Gourmet Diet, Craig Claiborne with Pierre Franey

9. Nothing Down, Robert Allen

10. Shelley: Also Known as Shirley, Shelley Winters

Compare this list to the one from 1972 [see my previous post. "How I Became a Bookseller."]  It seems to me that the titles on this list are a lot more commercial than they were back then. This coincides with new trends in publishing. Publishers were changing from cottage industries to big business.  Big publishers were buying up smaller publishers, and big  integrated media conglomerates were buying up big publishers. And books were increasingly being marketed by mass merchants to mass audiences.

 When I bought the store in 1977, there was  a small press table at the very front of store. The titles on the table were poetry and some literary broadsides  by lesser known or local writers.   Most of them  weren’t all that good or interesting and didn’t sell very well either. But Fred Cody had a sort of sentimental attachment to the idea.  In 1980 I  moved the display of the small presses  to the middle of the store closer to the poetry section. I thought of it as a practical decision. The table was pretty prominent real estate. And it just might make sense to display books that customers actually wanted to buy.  The local poets thought otherwise. They saw it as the opening salvo of the coming kulturkämpf, a kind of Manichean battle between the forces of culture vs. the forces of Mammon. (I guess I was Mammon.) It was argued that Fred Cody would have never eliminated the small press table. Whenever I did something at the store that some group didn’t like, I always accused of betraying the memory of Fred Cody.

I countered with my own broadside. I brought up   the words of T. S. Eliot to  attempt to shame the poets for using language like a sledge-hammer. I reminded them that “between the motion and the act, between the idea and the reality, falls the shadow.”  This tempest in a teapot finally resolved itself in a meeting over some cappuccinos across the street at the Café Med. I’m not sure how it all sorted out, but I think there was some kind of compromise where I promised some displays in other areas.

The biggest book for us that year and one of the biggest books ever at the store was Cosmos by Carl Sagan. Sagan had hosted an incredibly successful PBS series on astronomy.  He was also easy to parody. People went around all year imitating him by blowing up their cheeks and then exhaling histrionically while saying : “BILLIONS of stars”. We knew that this spinoff was going to be a very big book.

I decided to take a few cues from the chains and make a huge pile of  Cosmos right at the front entrance. The chains loved these mountainous displays of a single title that seemed to mesmerize  customers as they  entered the stores. They called the merchandising principle: “pile ‘em high and watch  ‘em fly.”  The  Cody’s staff was  generally appalled by  the Cosmos  display and started bludgeoning me with Fred Cody again. (Fred saw the display and didn’t seem particularly concerned.)   Maybe the staff was right  though. The first day the display was up, a customer came in with his dog who promptly lifted up his leg and peed on the stack. When I tried to get the customer, a disabled man and a Cody’s regular, to tie the dog up outside, he cited chapter and verse of the legal code that gave disabled people the right to be accompanied by their dog. I lost the battle but won the war. We sold over 1000 copies of  Cosmos.


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