Bookselling in the Eighties 2

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.

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