Bookselling in the Eighties 1

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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