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.

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