Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Why the Collapse of Chain Bookstores is a Good Thing for Books. Part 2

In yesterday’s post, we moved through the 1990’s where, as a dumb high school kid, I took a job at a small independent bookstore in 1991. A decade of transition and despair for indie bookstores in America, the 90’s saw the rise of the giants of bookselling – Amazon.com, Borders, and Barnes & Noble. Indie bookstores fell under siege, and victory was hopeless. But what are the origins of the big box, chain bookstores? How’d bookselling move from the strange little independently owned stores and fall into the laps of cold-blooded corporations? The intimate process of literature and creation was ripped from the community and homogenized in a fashion reminiscent of a fast food chain. The first shot in this war over bookselling was fired by billionaire Robert Haft.
by Andrew Gifford

Crown Books, Borders, and Barnes & Noble were all members of what some people call the “77 club.” Crown Books was founded in 1977. Borders, founded in 1971, had just begun, around 1977, to consolidate into “Borders Books and Music,” feeding off of a sister company that specialized in wholesale (they wouldn’t become the beast we know today until a 1992 buyout from Kmart). Barnes & Noble, founded a hundred years earlier, was finally hitting the skids with their handful of discount bookstores. Bought by financier Len Riggio in 1971, a prototype version of their chain discount stores appeared on the scene in 76-77. The 77 Club each independently saw the opportunity to hone and corporatize the super-bookstore idea, and they set out on a few different versions of this path in the carefree days of the 80’s.

Barnes & Noble slowly, with an almost saurian single-mindedness, began to devour the minor chains that had been struggling along in the nation’s shopping malls, while Borders, pursuing a similar path, also dominated the catalog sales, riding the coattails of their wholesale distribution house. Crown Books, however, launched immediately into a poorly-planned, hegemonic chain-store bonanza, opening hundreds of stores across the country. Robert Haft, the founder of Crown Books, casually declared war on indie bookstores, summoning shades of early fast food and hotel chain advertisements. He said he was creating something standardized and reliable, no matter where you washed up. If you wanted a book at a discount, then a Crown Bookstore was waiting for you. As we see today in airports and train stations, the idea was to create brand loyalty to the bookstore without actually caring about the books inside. The chain becomes ubiquitous and, therefore, trusted by consumers. Haft, infamously, would position Crown stores in areas dominated by indie bookstores, using the Haft family fortune to fatally undermine his indie competitors.

Indie bookstores fought valiantly, but only a few could stand against the onslaught. A whole generation died in the 80’s under the withering fire from Crown Books.

But then the Crown Empire ate itself from within. The Haft family splintered over internal politics and, by 1993, Crown Books was no more. A decade-long battle over the Crown fortune tainted every aspect of the empire and, from 1990 onwards, the Crown stores vanished, slowly, one by one. The few holdouts not worth mentioning or visiting.

The indie bookstores enjoyed a brief victory. The foolish belief that a national chain of bookstores couldn’t really hold on outside of soulless shopping malls was held by many, and was something I heard often in the back office at my little shop. Crown Books had imploded because the center cannot hold. Focus was, instead, turned to the coming Internet Menace.

The indies reacted to the hubris and bravado of Haft and his Crown Empire like the fractured, confederate force they were and are today. Thankfully, they still possessed some sense of unity. They came together, appealed to their communities, and joined organizations like the ABA, which saw its largest membership in the late 80’s and early 90’s. A membership that, as of 1992, in the wake of Crown’s demise, started to plummet.

With the indie bookstore guard down, the vacuum left by Crown Books was quietly filled by the much more thought-out and corporate-minded Borders and Barnes & Noble. Amazon, a simply demonic presence in the minds of indie bookstores, ascended the throne of darkness so slowly, it almost acted as more of a feint in the battle between the chains and the indies. The e-sellers wouldn’t really come into their own until 2000. But from 1995 onwards, they were seen, incorrectly, as Public Enemy #1.

Borders and Barnes & Noble, taking advantage of hubris now on the part of the indies, didn’t declare war as Robert Haft did. They painted themselves more as Young Turks, and they knew how to play the game. Unlike Crown Books, they’d taken the time to study the audience. They knew that the bookstore is actually about community. An idea that many indie bookstores had left behind in the 60’s and 70’s. The model for the new chains of the mid to late 1990’s saw the introduction of coffee shops, playrooms, music stations, seats and tables, places where customers could go and get lost in the stacks and read. Where they could fold themselves in a corner and enjoy their book unmolested by staff. Though indie bookstores had, at one time, pioneered this community-oriented model, they found themselves, by the mid to late 90’s, unable to afford to resurrect it. A cold war had begun, and the casualties were starting to mount.

By the end of the 90’s, every indie bookstore was on the defensive against the chains and the e-sellers. It was starting to become clear that the brittle structure of the little neighborhood indie bookstore could not hold on.

From the publishing perspective, sales seemed better than ever. The chains allowed for the creation of the “fad book.” Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael was an early hit, also see The Life of Pi, and the wunderkinds Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code. All books that were catapulted to international phenomena not by readership but through the mechanizations of marketing departments. With the chains in place, publishers rightly saw that a few bucks here, and a few bucks there, could translate into a pyramid of books just inside the door of every Barnes & Noble and Borders. Customers, in their Romero-esque zombie states, would have to crawl over these pyramids to get to their new bookstore communities of quiet corners, caffeinated beverages, and sweet rolls. By the very nature of a chain bookstore, just a handful of copies for the shelves of each store would guarantee thousands of sales in one shot.
The Da Vinci Code is, in my opinion, the most successful “fad book.” A well-placed check paid to A Major Bookstore Chain resulted in the chain buying out the first printing and displaying the books front and center. If the customer was waiting in line – any line – in the store, then Dan Brown would be right in front of their noses. (Of course, this was combined with an equally stunning and expensive blitzkrieg on talk shows and elsewhere.)

With chain stores, it became possible for wealthy publishers to simply buy their way onto the bestseller lists. “Staff picks,” “featured titles,” those books piled up by the door, and even the “what’s new” shelves and tables were all paid placements. The chains were making money and so were the big publishers.

The indie stores didn’t have a chance.

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