All bookstores need inventory control. Inventory control is how you manage your stock. We need to know which books are selling and how fast, which books we have run out of, which books need to get reordered and in what quantity, which have stopped selling and need to be returned, which categories are hot and which ones are not, how many copies of each book we have on hand, how many on order, when that order will arrive, and where is it shelved. Before the computer, we were not really able to get that information very easily.
In 1977, the way most bookstores managed their inventory was by a periodic physical book count done by publishers’ sales representatives. A sales rep would make an appointment 3 or 4 times a year to come in, crawl around the floor for a couple of days counting all of the books from his own company, and give us a huge list of his titles with the quantities that he counted and recommendations for reorders. He’d also pull from the shelves a few books that had stopped selling and tell us we could return them. As you can imagine, this wasn’t very efficient. A lot of bookstores raised this system to an apotheosis by organizing their stores by publisher rather than by subject. It was certainly a convenience for the sales reps, but it didn’t make much sense for the customers. Most of them didn’t come up to the information desk and ask if a bookstore had any nice Random House books they could browse. The system had the effect of insuring that orders were placed as infrequently as possible, sometimes only every 3 or 4 months. The publishers reinforced this system by giving very generous special deals seasonally to coincide with these big stock orders. Sometimes they even offered delayed billing so that we didn’t have to pay for months. It was an additional incentive for the bookseller to wait even longer before making reorders of hot selling titles. All of this tended to insure that we had vast amounts of overstock in the backroom that wasn’t selling and that we were frequently out of stock on the books that were selling.
In the 60s, Cody’s developed what was then a rather sophisticated alternative to this – for its time, at least. We stuffed 2″ x 3″ cardboard inventory cards in every book with the name of the book and the publisher on the card. We could also stamp the date that we received it to determine what had been on the shelf for too long. When the book was sold, we pulled out the card at the register and put it in a box. Periodically we sorted the cards by publisher in order to determine reorders based on past sales. Each card represented a sale for a particular book. We would shuffle through them and replace stock by ordering one copy for every card. For a clunky low-tech system, it worked pretty well and was definitely more efficient than waiting for the sales reps to crawl around on the floor.
When I bought the store in 1977, one of the more memorable Cody’s employees was a young graduate student in Computer Science at Cal named John Gage. He was brilliant, articulate, and had a passion for technology, but also a passion for books. Computers were not the all-consuming artifact of the culture as they are today. For starters, there were no personal computers. Most computers were still big banks of machinery in air conditioned rooms. Obviously there was no World Wide Web, not even in the exuberant dreams of the futurists of the time. The previous year John convinced Pat and Fred Cody that they should allow him to create a computer section for the store; also a graduate level mathematics section and a collection of similarly high level titles in physics and quantitative economics. As a result, during the 70s and 80s, Cody’s was the preeminent store in the country in these areas. Probably the bestselling book in the entire store for, hmmm, maybe ten years was The C Programming Language by John Kernighan. We must have sold 5000 copies of that book . Most of the computer books were written for a high level technical audience. The personal computer was barely on anyone’s radar. The Apple 2, which was the real beginning of the personal computer revolution, was introduced in 1977, the same year that I took over the store. The graduate students hovering around the computer section condescendingly referred to the people with Apple 2s as “hobbyists”.
John had a novel idea for the store that he thought was pretty nifty. — He liked to use the word, “nifty”. He figured out a way to control inventory and place orders using a computer. It was an improvisation, not very sophisticated. But almost all computerized inventory systems today are highly embellished variations of John’s concept.
John realized that our clunky card-in-the-book inventory system was easily adoptable to the rather primitive (and expensive) computer technology of the time. He developed a scheme to replace the inventory cards with IBM punch cards. Remember those? He would collect them every week and take them to the computer center at UC. There, late at night when no one was around to stop him, he would run the punch cards through the giant card sorters and punchers and would generate orders to be printed and new cards corresponding to those orders that would be stuffed in the books when they were received.. We were one of the first bookstores, if not the first, with a computerized inventory control system, thanks to John. All of a sudden we were able to place orders every week instead of every 3 months. And we had alphabetical lists of every book in the store and in what section they were shelved. The computer revolution had begun!
What happened to John Gage? One day he was standing in the mathematics section of the store, no doubt browsing an advanced Springer-Verlag book with a yellow cover on a subject like stochastic processes or applied regression analysis. He got into a conversation with a Computer Science professor from UC, Bill Joy. They went across the street to Café Med and started making drawings on napkins. Ultimately this led to an idea, which developed into a concept, that emerged into a design, that became a plan for a new type of computer and a company to manufacture and market it. John and five other people took this plan and went off to Silicon Valley to create a modest sized technology startup called Sun Microsystems. Ultimately John became the head of science at Sun and a major figure in the history of Silicon Valley. It all began at Cody’s.