Diary

John Sutherland

South Lake Avenue in Pasadena, a few hundred yards from where I’m sitting, is named for the now dried up stream that once ran from the San Gabriel mountains to the Los Angeles basin. It was always a handsome thoroughfare, and the city invested tens of millions in the late 1970s to make it into Pasadena’s own Rodeo Drive. The investment didn’t entirely pay off: South Lake still looks like a big, over-invested-in street in a small western American town. But it has handsome stores, banks, expensive office space, handy parking and an upmarket feel. Pasadenans like to shop, eat, and just be there.

In the 1980s there was a thriving bookshop on South Lake called Hunter’s. It had served the local community for many years and was something of an institution. I was a regular customer. One might have called Hunter’s old-fashioned, were it not for the fact that bookshops in the English-speaking world had barely changed in two centuries. Isabella Thorpe and Catherine Morland, eagerly seeking the latest ‘horrid’ Mrs Radcliffe volumes in Bath, or Clarissa Dalloway, gazing disdainfully into Hatchard’s window in Piccadilly, would have found Hunter’s home territory. Patrons were attended to by earnest, bookish assistants, who loved their merchandise, knew their customers and looked kindly on browsers. It even smelled like a bookshop – a kind of high-minded mustiness. Sales were written down on pieces of paper and checked, laboriously, at closing time. Stock control must have been a nightmare – or non-existent. The staff was trusted; the patrons were loyal; and Hunter’s was profitable.

That, perversely, was its downfall, and its antiquated way of doing things didn’t help. In 1987, a chain store, Crown Books, bought up a property a few shopfronts away – clearly having marked Hunter’s as a soft target. The previously glacier-slow evolution of book retailing had quickened in the previous decade. Crown was, historically speaking, a second-generation book chain. The first generation had established itself in the early 1960s, in response to the affluent suburbanisation of America, universal car ownership and the ‘malling’ of shopping centres. Waldenbooks, a firm previously big in the library business, opened its first mall outlet in 1962. So, at around the same time, did B. Dalton. Both chains rapidly set up standardised outlets across the nation. They held shallow stock reserves and relied on conspicuous displays of their wares (often non-books by traditional standards), ‘signage’ (placards etc), strategic placements (the best spots were often paid for by the publisher), bestseller buzz, casual purchase and, above all, discounted prices.

The chains took full advantage of new technology: not for them slips of paper. B. Dalton was fully computerised by 1966 – the first major bookseller in the country to be so. Electronics had not merely revolutionised retail selling but had also rationalised wholesale distribution – traditionally ramshackle and inefficient in the book trade. Until the 1960s (the all-change decade for the trade) the wholesaling of books had barely changed since the intranational railway system made countrywide distribution feasible a century earlier. And, in many parts of the heavily populated seaboards, it was, until the 1960s, often more practicable to get books direct from the nearby publisher. As the two chains established themselves so behind them did two large, electronically sophisticated wholesalers, Ingram Book Company and Baker & Taylor. As Laura Miller notes, these wholesalers’ speed and reliability of delivery ‘rationalised book distribution by enabling booksellers to implement a “just in time” strategy’.[*]

The cultural tone of the mall book-chains, and the wholesalers behind them, was ‘de-elitist’. They represented, as Miller puts it, ‘a move away from an educational mission to a service orientation’. The move worked. By 1982, Waldenbooks and B. Dalton accounted for 24 per cent of all book sales in America. Crown, which came on the scene in 1977, was different: it set its horizons beyond the mall parking lot. It would do to main-street bookshops what Rite Aid and Thrifty had done to traditional independent drugstores with their soda fountains and cosy corner-shop atmosphere: exterminate and replace them.

The mastermind behind Crown was Robert Haft, a Harvard Business School graduate who had written his master’s thesis on retail discounting. Crown’s philosophy, as displayed on South Lake, was predatory. Find an existing profitable outlet, set up alongside it, discount the neighbour into extinction, take over its custom and expand it. They knocked a standard 35 per cent off titles on the New York Times bestseller list. Along the aisles would be tables stacked with marked-down ‘bargain’ books. The old gentilities of the carriage-trade bookshop – advice, customer recognition, credit accounts – were sacrificed. Crown’s assistants swiped the card, punched the buttons and waited for their lunch hour. The slogan was: ‘If you paid full price, you didn’t buy it at Crown.’

Hunter’s went to the wall. Customer loyalty, built up over decades, crumbled in months. Readers always think books overpriced – which they aren’t – and can rarely resist the opportunity to buy two for the price of one. Crown was hugely successful in its heyday. It was the first chain to go public, in 1983, bringing book-retailing into the corporate first division. On the strength of its success, it made another evolutionary leap in May 1990, by opening the first Super Crown in Alexandria, Virginia. These new establishments were (for the time) mega-large: public library-sized, as their publicity pointed out. A Super Crown was duly erected on South Lake, replacing its diminutive predecessor, whose work, the destruction of Hunter’s, was done.

The chain’s triumph was shortlived. Crown itself became insolvent in 1998. There were a number of reasons, but one was a flaw in the Haft formula. Crown’s blitzkrieg strategy had been right for winning territory, but was poor at holding on to it. Their sales ethos was radically unbookish: ‘Price ’em low, pile ’em high and watch ’em fly’ gratified the consumer’s pocket, but not the soul. Customers (‘patrons’ no longer), denied their browsing pleasures and former dignities, felt dissatisfied. Buying a book was not, it turned out, the same as restocking the medicine cabinet with Preparation H from Rite Aid. People felt that something important had been lost with the disappearance of the traditional shop, and nostalgia created new commercial possibilities that the early chains failed to capitalise on. Waldenbooks and B. Dalton were struggling. Lease costs had rocketed beyond a point where selling books was viable. You couldn’t sell enough, fast enough, to make it pay. When, in 2000, the expensively refurbished, open-sky, Paseo Mall opened half a mile from South Lake, it didn’t contain a single bookshop among the boutiques, cinemas and gourmet food stores.

Books were still being bought, however, and in ever greater numbers. Two new players, Barnes & Noble and Borders, with vast reserves of capital from conglomeration, took over the lead, marching over the carcasses of their chained predecessors. They adopted Crown’s superstore model, and got it right, setting up premises that were even larger than those Haft had pioneered. Where books were concerned, these third-generation chains had different philosophies. Borders, which began in the 1970s as a small-town university bookstore in Ann Arbor, went for the glorious jumble of the traditional bookshop. Barnes & Noble, a metropolitan outlet since the mid-19th century, preferred easy-to-locate categories. What both chains had in common was a vision of the bookstore that was more than a bookstore. They devised a decor and layout which encouraged a hip sort of casualness and which treated books as merely one among a range of fashion accessories and leisure activities. Their stock was rich in ‘wallpaper’ titles, whose function was not primarily to sell, but to dignify the environment. Nor was it all books. Barnes & Noble opened its first bookstore café in 1992; Borders went on to establish an alliance with a subsidiary of Starbucks in 2004.

As in a Paris café, you could drink your espresso, eat your croissant, read your paper, check your email. Perhaps buy a book, or five, or none. The superstores kept theatre-restaurant hours, staying open into the night. There were armchairs between the racks. As one B&N publicity statement put it (intending self-praise), these were ‘amusement parks for the mind’. Sad people would virtually live there, phantoms of the bookshop. There were in-store play areas for children, while their parents shopped for the books that would give their offspring a head-start in life. The relaxed mood camouflaged category management systems borrowed from grocery chains, and a way with customer profiling that the FBI might have envied. At heart, these firms were as hardnosed as Crown. But they were not so open (‘if you paid full price’ etc) about it. They have triumphed, for now. Among the lots on South Lake where Hunter’s, Crown and Super Crown once stood is a huge multi-storey Borders.

Laura Miller, a social scientist, sees what has happened since the 1960s as a long ‘book war’, with implications that extend far beyond the book trade. Books are a particularly illustrative commodity – involving, as they do, issues of commercial profit, cultural responsibility and the consumer’s lust for bargains. They cut through to the central issues of modern capitalism. How ‘reluctant’ should retailers be in their surrender to the profit motive? What kind of retailing should consumers, by their purchasing practices, encourage? Is price the sole consideration? The backlash objections to the mega-bookstore are predictable. It’s McBarnes & McNoble, and BorderMart. Despite the sophisticated veneer, the superstores covertly standardise an inherently, and importantly, diverse product. Like Wal-Mart, they have been accused of underpaying their employees and strong-arming publishers in the drive to maximise profits. They are to books what Caffè Nero is to ‘real’ cafés.

Miller, with her long historical perspective, is interestingly ambivalent on the issues. More books are more easily available today than at any time in history, she points out. Before the appearance of the first-generation chains in the 1960s, the American book trade, and the codex book itself, were imperilled, largely as a result of the trade’s structural inefficiency. Few concerned observers, in 1953, regarded as far-fetched Ray Bradbury’s vision, in Fahrenheit 451, of an America in which affluence, and five million TV sets, had rendered books culturally irrelevant. Whatever the chains’ and superstores’ shortcomings, they have pumped more reading matter into society, and into more levels of society, than at any period in history. They have also sucked money out; but that has been ploughed back into bigger and more efficient bookstores that have filled the gap left by the increasingly withered public library system.

And, as Miller’s final chapters record, the growth of the superstores – Wal-Mart is the outstanding instance – has energised communities and ‘independent’ booksellers in the defence of what they now value, belatedly, but not necessarily too late. It’s complicated. As the defenders of Wal-Mart point out, it’s the superstore, not the friendly local butcher, that has made it possible for the poor to eat prime steak and wear designer clothes. Miller’s main point is that retail selling, in a mature capitalist society, is not a neutral delivery system. As it evolves, it is both symptomatic and formative of a way of life. And a way of life in which more good things – books, for example – are available to larger sections of the population should not necessarily be sneered at. But it can usefully be thought about.

The book wars, recorded by Miller, are now, after the inevitable time-lag, being replayed in the UK. Substitute Tesco for Wal-Mart, Waterstone’s for Barnes & Noble, Richard & Judy for Oprah, and the issues are identical. There is no need to substitute for Borders: its Oxford Street branch is a replica of the South Lake outlet. Until the abolition of the Net Book Agreement in 1997, Britain had a distinctly different style of book retailing from America, but over the last ten years it has gone the same way. Two large superstore chains dominate metropolitan bookselling and they are largely indistinguishable in appearance and operation from their American counterparts.

What does seem to be different in the UK is the extraordinary turbulence in the retail sector. The recent, and unsuccessful, £280 million takeover bid by Tim Waterstone for the chain that carries his name defies satire. As now transformed, Waterstone’s bears as much resemblance to the original high-toned bookshop Waterstone founded in 1982 as does the ubiquitous big-box Wal-Mart to Sam Walton’s convenience store in Rogers, Arkansas. As the chief executive of HMV blandly put it, ‘the book market has moved on since Tim founded Waterstone’s.’ Indeed it has. But in what direction? The British book retail trade is currently in a condition of vertiginous merry-go-round. Tim Waterstone wants to get Waterstone’s back from HMV. HMV wants to acquire Ottakar’s. Permira wants to acquire HMV. Hundreds of millions of borrowed pounds are flying around. WH Smith wonders whether to de-diversify and go back, wholeheartedly, into books. Meanwhile the high-street supermarkets are skimming the cream with bookstands offering bestsellers and Richard & Judy selections at bargain basement prices. And there is agitated, and futile, protest as small, much loved, independent booksellers in Camden, Islington or Camberwell go under. The turbulence doubtless has many causes but sentimentalists will feel that one main cause is the incompatibility between the current, brutally Americanised form of the British book trade and its distinguished tradition.

The current state of the trade is so fluid that the protests and the anguish may already be out of date. It’s even hard for Miller to keep up. She is unawed by Amazon, which, like Jason Epstein in Book Business (2001), she sees as an old-fashioned mail-order operation, with a nifty electronic sales catalogue as its main selling point. It may, she notes, project itself as a futuristic click-and-order webstore, but it has been obliged to set up bricks-and-mortar warehouses and relies on ancient postal delivery systems. No one has yet worked out an equivalent of iTunes: a commercially viable way of convincing web-connected consumers to buy their books by digital download. But they’re working on it, and the effects will be dramatic. As he passed through London last October, on his way to solve Africa’s problems, Bill Gates predicted that in ten years every student in the English-speaking world would be able to purchase, for around $400, a tablet-sized device that could access every textbook for every conceivable taught subject. This machine would, of course, be retailed through Microsoft, not Borders or Barnes & Noble. Sony is about to roll out the reading person’s Playstation, a handheld ‘Sony Reader’, and hopes customers will want to download their Dan Brown e-books straight from the Sony Connect store. Meanwhile MIT is leading a large field in the development of electronic paper: a flexible, high-contrast lightweight screen that will retain its downloaded contents even when the power is off. How all this technological innovation will eventually settle down isn’t clear, but whatever happens it’s likely to be bad for the traditional walk-in bookshops. And they aren’t going to be rescued by armchairs in the aisles.

The click-on bookshop, such as Amazon, has another future advantage over its walk-in rivals. The patron enters the premises of the high-street retailer. The webstore enters your premises. Amazon is already exploring areas of its customer base for which, in the past, a legal warrant would have been required. The American economist Preston McAfee suggests that hip bookbuyers should

try logging into Amazon with your own identity and asking for a price on something. Then clear your cookies (so Amazon cannot access your personal information and purchasing history) and search again anonymously for the same item. Sometimes you will be quoted a different price, because when Amazon looks at your past spending pattern, and sees that you have not always gone for the lowest price, they will treat you as a poor searcher – a more inelastic customer – and make you a less attractive offer.

Big Bookseller is Watching You.

It is one of the curiosities of books, even the cheapest, that they can be used many times. This durability was what made circulating and public libraries viable. Second-hand, or pre-owned, bookselling has, however, traditionally been a feeble sector in the trade, accounting for only a tiny portion of annual turnover. Recently Amazon has modified its web catalogue. Formerly it offered new (off-the-shelf delivery) and backlist (‘we’ll order it for you’) items. Now it offers ‘used and new’ titles. Without great fanfare, it has become the world’s largest and most efficient second-hand bookshop. This will have profound consequences over the next few years. To take one example: if, as a university teacher ten years ago, I had wanted to offer a course on – say – the New Woman novel of the 1890s, my reading-list options were so limited that it wasn’t worth bothering. Now, at reasonable cost, a largish class can be equipped with reading matter. The editions will, of course, not be standard: but the primary material is available.

What Amazon is turning towards is not the iTune-isation but the eBay-isation of books. Titles may, as in the past, go out of print but they will not, as in the past, become generally inaccessible. They will circulate, alongside new books, until they physically disintegrate. This new perennial availability will put millions more books into general circulation. Its effects will be considerable and, at present, imponderable. And, just over the horizon, is Google-isation and Gates-isation, which, if one believes the publicity, will put every book ever printed into eternal circulation. The superstores’ triumph will be shortlived. Enjoy the armchairs while you can.

[*] In Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption (Chicago, 328 pp., £22.50, May, 0 226 52590 2).