Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Economics, Sociology

Books: A Different Kind of Commodity

jacket imageAn essay by Laura J. Miller, author of Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption.
This past March, the Massachusetts press generated a flurry of reports that Cambridge’s Grolier Poetry Book Shop had found a new owner. The tone of these articles was one of great relief since Grolier, one of the few remaining all-poetry bookstores in the country, had been on the verge of going under for some years. Louisa Solano, Grolier’s long-time owner, was worn down by ill health and the financial difficulties of running a small, independent bookshop in a neighborhood with some of the most expensive commercial real estate in the region. While both local residents and poetry lovers across the nation were cheered by the turn of events, it is actually a rare success story in the recent annals of independent bookselling.
This has been another bad year for independent bookstores. Most weeks I read about bookshops that have or will soon shut down; some are places known primarily in their local communities, while others have national reputations. Among those closing in the last six months were Tatnuck Booksellers of Worcester, Massachusetts, the Athena Bookstore of Kalamazoo, Biblio of Tucson, and Dutton’s Bookstore of North Hollywood. In this second week of May, one of the preeminent bookstores of the country, Cody’s Books of Berkeley, announced that it is closing its main store, a Berkeley institution for close to fifty years. Numerous others bookstores, large and small, some decades old, others relative newcomers, have also shut their doors.

Of course, small business failure is nothing new or extraordinary in American society; independent retailers in just about any field can tell you about the low odds for long-term success, or the brutal competition represented by national chains. But what is unusual about this situation is the tremendous sense of loss voiced by residents when a local bookstore closes. This powerful regret has a lot to do with the items being sold—books—which are widely considered to be a “different” kind of commodity. The way in which books are viewed as an object deserving of special respect can be seen in the reactions of people to another recent bookstore closure, this one in February in Gaithersburg, Maryland. According to a newspaper report, bystanders watched in horror as agents of the landlord that evicted the Victor Kamkin bookstore threw thousands of books into a dumpster. One patron was quoted as saying she would not let her toddler son watch such an occurrence. While the newspaper report emphasized that this was a Russian-language bookstore, and that the community that patronized it reflected an especially Russian attachment to books, an examination of American history shows that regard for the printed word has long had an important place in the United States as well. Traditionally associated with education as well as religious practices, books continue to be seen as embodying the human condition and nourishing the soul. Likewise, the industry that publishes and sells books is populated by a large number of people who see their work as a sort of calling; that is, they consider the intrinsic worth of disseminating books as equal to, if not more important than, simply earning money. Just as books are believed to have particular moral worth, the act of selling books is viewed as, at least potentially, an especially moral endeavor.
Because of this regard, the book industry has long been pulled between the need to engage in practices aimed at making their businesses more profitable, and selecting, displaying and promoting books with an eye towards setting them apart from more mundane goods. For at least the first part of the twentieth century, typical bookselling practices did not make this line of work a very lucrative endeavor. Book industry leaders lamented the considerable inefficiencies they saw, which compounded the usual problems faced by small businesses. Key to the situation was the absence of standardized business methods within the book industry, and the absence of a standardized product, as books came in thousands (and today, tens of thousands) of new varieties each year. Independent booksellers also had to face fierce competition from retailers, such as drug stores and newsstands, that carried the most popular books of the day among their product lines. From the turn of the twentieth century until the 1960s, department stores in particular vexed regular booksellers; they were seen as denigrating the book by selling it side-by-side with other goods, and, in a more direct financial blow to bookstores, the department stores sold books at discounted prices. In the 1950s, discount variety stores also engaged in massive price cutting, sometimes even using books as loss leaders (sold below cost) in order to lure customers into their stores.
But as difficult as this financial climate was for the average bookseller, no one quite anticipated the new era that started in the 1960s with the formation of the modern chain bookstore. Two chains became particularly influential: Waldenbooks and B. Dalton Bookseller. The reach of these companies was far greater than any bookstore chain to come before as they built hundreds of stores spread all across the country. The chains achieved tremendous success by operating small outlets in shopping centers or malls, and by emphasizing popular titles, minimal service, and heavily advertised discounts. These stores also cultivated a casual ambiance meant to appeal to readers put off by the elitist image of the traditional bookstore. And the chains were able to modernize and standardize bookselling to an extent few had previously thought possible. In the process, the chains gained a considerable amount of power within the book world, from the offices of publishing houses to the habits of consumers.
However, by the end of the 1980s, the chains, facing a shortage of prime mall locations to move into, were looking more carefully at other styles of bookselling. Independent bookstores, which lost tremendous ground to the chains in the ’70s, had started to make a comeback by offering more services and a bigger (or at least less predictable) selection than the national chains did. Taking a cue from those independents, along with other “big box” retailers such as Toys ’R’ Us, the chains then developed the superstores, the first of which opened in 1990. Superstore was the name given to a new format of chain bookstore, one with several times the number of titles and the amount of floor space as to be found in the typical mall chain outlet. The superstores also offered a wide range of services, including cafés, author events, and other literary-themed entertainments that had previously been found only in some independents. These outlets quickly became popular, and refined a retail model that many consumers have come to take for granted. This is one of huge, standardized stores that promise discounted items to fit with anyone’s lifestyle, and sold in an entertaining environment. By the same token, this model encourages a cultural vision of consumption as fun, bargain-oriented, predictable, and driven by personal lifestyle or taste preferences.
The effect of the superstore strategy was to decisively give the chains dominance in the bookstore market. Even following the successes of the mall chains, independent bookstores still sold more books than did chains. But by 1997, the two largest companies, Barnes & Noble and the Borders Group, by themselves controlled nearly half of the bookstore market. When one added the growing prominence of the online bookseller,, it was clear that independent bookstores were under siege.
This set the stage for the contemporary book wars, in which independent booksellers have responded in two intersecting ways. On the one hand, they redoubled their efforts to improve their business practices, and to engage in many of the same kind of marketing efforts as the chains use. On the other hand, independents also have engaged in political and litigation activity. One recent example of this is California’s Marin County bookstore, Book Passage, which has organized local residents to protest plans for a Barnes & Noble to open only one block away. Book Passage and its supporters are calling on local officials to enact an ordinance restricting big box retailers, while simultaneously pressuring the Florida State Board of Retirement, which owns the mall that Barnes & Noble is proposing to move into, to nix the deal. What we hear in this campaign goes counter to the usual assumption that increased retail choice is always better for consumers. Rather, independents argue that limiting choice can actually contribute to the greater good of the community by preserving local character, local control, and local solidarity. Similarly, other bookseller campaigns have asked consumers to forego the discounts offered by the chains, and instead give their business to independents who, by virtue of their smaller size, do not have the economies of scale that make price cutting possible. And because it is books that are at issue, these arguments can have particular resonance for Americans.
As of this writing, it is not clear whether Book Passage can muster enough support to keep Barnes & Noble out of the neighborhood. But whether one believes that communities benefit more from independent businesses or from chains, the bookstore wars help us better understand competing cultural frameworks for understanding consumer motivation and consumer responsibility. Retail business practices can reflect a model of the consumer as an individual who is self-interested and makes choices according to personal lifestyle or taste preferences. But they can also challenge the notion that consumption is a private matter, and instead posit consumer behavior as an act that should contribute to the common good.
An excerpt from Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption discusses the interior design of chain bookstores.