Archives for category: Bookstores

The One Book, One New York book for 2019 has just been announced: it is Patti Smith’s Just Kids. Goodreads describes it thus “In Just Kids, Patti Smith’s first book of prose, the legendary American artist offers a never-before-seen glimpse of her remarkable relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the epochal days of New York City and the Chelsea Hotel in the late sixties and seventies. An honest and moving story of youth and friendship, Smith brings the same unique, lyrical quality to Just Kids as she has to the rest of her formidable body of work — from her influential 1975 album Horses to her visual art and poetry.” Epochal days? I seem to remember constantly threatening bankruptcy, but as Ms Smith said on WNYC when the announcement of her book’s selection was made, the great thing about the city then was that it was so “economically welcoming”.

Do literacy programs like Big Reads really work? asks Terena Bell at The Outline. (Link via Literary Hub.) Nancy Pearl got the ball rolling in 1998 with Seattle Reads and that seems to have been successful: by 2005 Seattle was adjudged the nation’s most literate city. The overall answer to Ms Bell’s question seems to be that these mass reading programs probably do work, but we can’t really tell. Maybe we should all just ask our local bookstores if nomination has a noticeable effect on sales: I had a little difficulty locating a copy yesterday, partly because it’s on reserve for class reading at Columbia University. This morning Amazon says they’ve only got three copies of the paperback left in stock, though it doesn’t show in their top twenty bestseller list.

In the meantime: get out there and buy a copy from your local independent bookstore. Your reading schedule kicks off on 10 May with an event at Symphony Space as part of the PEN America World Voices Festival.

Richard Charkin, writing at Publishing Perspectives in recollection of his years of work with the Publishers Association tells this tale:

. . . it was common practice for overseas booksellers to tear out and return title pages of [medical] books for credit rather than incur the cost of shipping heavy books back to the UK. One of our members, Peter Wolfe, noticed that a particular Singaporean bookseller’s returned title pages had four straight edges rather than three. The bookseller had worked out that it was more cost-effective to reprint title pages for credit than to pirate whole books and that big Western distribution centers wouldn’t spot the fraud. It took a small medical publisher to do so and put an end to the practice for the whole industry.

We book publishers tend to assume that, because we are obviously not motivated by money (otherwise we wouldn’t be in the business!) nobody that we deal with could possibly be afflicted with that bug. It always comes as a surprise to us when someone pulls a fast one. This is a good feature of our business, but too much abuse cannot but tend to erode this philanthropic world view.

The reason why we would accept for credit just the torn-off covers from mass market paperbacks was that the books were not worth the cost of sending them back to the warehouse: the same reason, at a different scale, for the decision not to have medical books shipped back from the other side of the globe. As my earlier post, End returns? suggested, the returning and crediting of books is a cumbersome and expensive process, so avoiding it with cheap books is absolutely logical. The assumption of course is that the bookseller will destroy the now coverless book, and NOT sell it off at a huge discount. As a publisher, I naturally assume that booksellers do all comply with this deal, and that those coverless books which seep into the market all come from the garbage pickup crews. (No doubt there are people out there willing to write in support of the inherent honesty of dustmen, and I apologize for using them as a whipping boy even if ironically.) It’s obviously a bit more expensive to print up a cover for a mass market paperback than it is for the title page of an expensive medical text, so I would imagine nobody’s ever tried this one on.

Publishers need bookstores. The relationship between these two branches of the book business is however potentially fraught. As it’s the publisher who sets retail price and discount on their books booksellers can be imagined occasionally to chafe under their inability to improve margins. Of course a bookseller can mark up the price of a book, but with easy access to pricing information customers can also walk out and buy elsewhere, so only the most ballsy bookseller can try this one. To the extent that book prices rise in step with inflation the problem is mitigated, but the difficulty comes when rents, especially, race upward at their own frenetic pace.

This is the fifth year we’ve been doing this. Maybe it’s just coincidence, but it seems to be working.

The organization’s website is here.

So, on Saturday go buy a book (or two).

Last year saw a net increase of 18 bookshops in Britain despite overall declines in retail store numbers. Here’s Shelf Awareness‘ 12 April story:

British Bookshops Defy Negative High Street Trends

Although a record number of small retailers closed in Britain last year–an average of 16 stores a day–bookshops “are bucking the trend,” the Bookseller reported. A record net 2,481 stores disappeared from Great Britain’s top 500 high streets in 2018. In total, 3,372 shops opened, compared to 5,833 closures. (2017 net loss: -1,772 stores), according to PwC research compiled by the Local Data Company.

Despite the widespread decline, “bookshops took second spot of the biggest growth categories after gyms with ice cream parlors. Bookshops reported a net change of 18 units with 42 openings and 24 closures,” the Bookseller wrote.

While welcoming the news, Booksellers Association managing director Meryl Halls said, “We are delighted that the PwC report confirms the strong showing for bookshops on our high streets that the BA highlighted earlier in the year, and we continue to be immensely proud of the hard work and creativity by booksellers that has led to this situation…

“Booksellers are creative and deft, but they can’t save high streets by themselves. We need to work in collaborations and civic partnerships with others to ensure our high streets survive and flourish, and we need government to recognize the enormous part high street retail plays in the culture and economy of the U.K. and act to support it, partly through business rates reform, which currently clearly unfairly favors online and out of town retail.”

Only gyms with ice cream parlors increased more quickly! I guess you put it on and take it off in one handy location. Food for the mind usually doesn’t require you to sweat it off, but after coffee shops and wine bars, is an ice cream parlor with a couple of treadmills the next idea for a bookshop?

What happened in USA? Well, during 2018 the American Booksellers Association gained 96 new members and in 2017, 75. The ABA is a membership organization which stores have to pay to belong to, so its membership list is by no means synonymous with “the independent bookstore”, but maybe we can assume a similar trend throughout the entire bookstore universe. In an NPR interview last year Ryan Raffaelli of Harvard Business School, claimed that between 2009 and “today” the number of independent bookstores in the USA increased by 40%. This piece from Statista shows a similar picture, slightly lower for companies, rather higher for locations. There’s a graph illustrating this at the link.

The long and the short of it is that for the moment independent bookstores are more than holding their own: sales increased about 5% last year according to Professor Raffaelli. I went to The Shed in Hudson Yards last week after it had been open for a couple of days, and they too have a bookstore.

See also Independent bookstores, where there’s a Professor Raffaelli video.

OK, it’s short, and it may take you longer to queue up to get it for free than it’ll take you to read it, but who wouldn’t like a free short story from one of the three vending machines which have just been put up at Canary Wharf? The Guardian brings us the story.

Here’s one at the station, where it looks like it may risk getting in the way of rush-hour commuters.

Photo: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

I noted these machines a couple of years ago. According to another Guardian story, the same French company, Short Édition, is the one supplying the machines. They have many installations around the world: you can find a map here which you can enlarge to see where to go to get your stories. New York’s a desert: the nearest are the three machines in Boston and three in the Philadelphia area. (You can, it seems, also read the stories online at the Short Édition site.) Obviously someone has to pay for these machines, the writing, the paper, the maintenance. Another Guardian story tells us “The cost is borne by businesses, which are encouraged to install the machines as a way of improving customer experiences and preventing people from getting cross or bored.” Well, OK. Let’s hope these businesses continue to think it a good idea. I’m not expecting the New York subway system to spend part of their anticipated windfall from congestion charging on short stories. Inevitably they’re not even going to be getting enough fully to replace the 100-year old points. Maybe we need a wealthy commuter.

Here’s a promo video showing Francis Ford Coppola getting on board — but, more importantly, also showing the machine in operation.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

Thanks to Nathan Barr for the link.

The Passive Voice comments on a Guardian piece on the difficulties of maintaining a bookstore in New York City. The headline is a bit misleading (The Guardian‘s fault not his). “Why are New York’s Bookstores Disappearing?” doesn’t quite represent current reality, where we are in fact experiencing a little bounce from what we all hope is a bottom. So, in 1950 we had 386 bookshops, while now we have 80? This has absolutely no relevance for the demand for books: in 1950 there was only one way to get a book. Not quite true today: yet more books are sold now than then.

The Passive Guy surprised and delighted me by launching in on a riff about rent control: “Following World War II, concerned about rising residential rents during the post-war boom, New York politicians established Rent Control on apartments, a complex set of laws and regulations limiting the maximum rent a landlord could charge a tenant while the tenant continued to live in the apartment. Rent control continues to this day, over 70 years following the emergency it was established to address. Another set of complex regulations, Rent Stabilization, governs the amount by which monthly rent can increase in almost a million rental properties. When an apartment is finally free from rent control, it becomes a rent-stabilized apartment. Among other things, these rent regulations can prevent landlords from tearing down an old apartment building to provide room for new residential or commercial space.”

But just as I was getting ready to cheer he comes up with this out-of-left-field assertion: “This type of regulation alone increases the costs of doing business in New York City, including the costs of operating a bookstore, by a huge margin.” Forcing landlords to charge lower rents increases the cost of doing business in New York? I guess the thought is that if they can’t rip off their residential tenants, landlords will naturally turn to ripping off their commercial ones? I’m no economist, but increasing the cost of doing business for landlords in New York seems to me to be a great idea. Do we really have to stick to rigid capitalist orthodoxy that the most benefit for everyone is to be found in allowing business to extract the most profit from our wallets which will allow unfettered competition to bring prices crashing back down again? In macro terms I dare say an almost convincing argument can be constructed, but if the best way forward for bookstores is extermination because of an inability to afford ever-increasing rents, enabling by their disappearance the eventual evolution of something different (better?), I say stop talking rubbish. My immediate concern is not the benefit of the U.S. population of 2119 or 2219 — I see today, and know that rising rents, while good for landlords, are bad for bookstores (and many other small businesses and individuals). I’d like to see rent control extended to small businesses too.

In a paragraph which The Passive Voice chose to omit The Guardian says “One of the causes of skyrocketing business rents is speculation: owners are forcing out tenants because buildings are sometimes more valuable empty. The goal is ‘to empty these buildings of rent-regulated residents and small businesses’, Moss says, so that they can be sold for profit or used as collateral with which to borrow money that is then invested elsewhere.” I’m not sure what it is about this process that can be held to be good for us.

The Passive Voice makes much of the fact that bookselling is a low profit business, which nobody will deny. As he informs us though, so too is Walmart. I imagine that buried in his piece but not expressed is the notion that it is those wicked publishers who are really the ones killing bookstores, by our stubborn refusal to give the booksellers bigger discounts. The commentariat alternates their excoriation of profit-seeking publishers by bashing them today for cheating bookstores, then next week for cheating authors. No doubt if they knew enough, they’d bash us for cheating suppliers too. Amazing to reflect how it happens that a low-paying industry staffed by and large by idealists, can have grown into such a rapacious monster.

Of course the fact of the matter is that this mature industry is ticking over just fine. Most sales are made through Amazon, and that’s just fine (Mike Shatzkin argues in his latest post that Amazon is in fact each big publisher’s most profitable outlet). The book chain era is over, or almost over: the dinosaurs have been superseded by Amazon, but lots of people have noticed that they rather like going into bookstores and looking at the books before they buy them. There is, to be sure, a show-rooming problem, and there will always be people who think it’s OK to stand in an independent bookstore and take out their phone to order from Amazon a book they’ve just discovered. There are unfortunately more of these jackasses than of people who will follow The Passive Guy’s suggestion of just slipping a bookseller a $20 bill every now and then, but they have to be outnumbered by folks who think supporting their local bookstore is a really good idea. Despite the fact that the point was passed long ago that it was impossible to fit another book in our apartment, we cannot visit an independent bookstore without walking out with yet another book. Almost reached this point with Barnes & Noble too, now they are in such trouble. Maybe we should just start handing out folding money.

George Orwell’s 1936 essay Bookshop Memories (the text of which which may be found here) recounts his reactions to a short career in bookselling. He wasn’t exactly enthusiastic. A few years ago we might have kept our fingers crossed when reading his confident forecast “The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman.”  — Now it’s the combines which are in trouble, and I think we are all feeling a good deal more confident about the future of the small independent bookseller — almost as confident as George Orwell did.

Shaun Bythell, owner of The Book Shop in Wigtown, Scotland, a used book store, starts each month of his The Diary of a Bookseller (Melville House, 2018) with an extract from Orwell’s essay and a brief comment about it.  The Book Shop is surprisingly large as you can see from this video, the making of which is described in the book.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post and view it in your browser.

The Diary of a Bookseller is predictably in day-by-day format and covers one year (2014-15). Mr Bythell writes an accessible, friendly prose commenting wryly on the frequent emergencies of bookshop life. He tracks the daily number of customers, amount of money in the till, and online orders. What surprised me most perhaps is how much money was involved, and at the same time paradoxically how little of it there was. He also recounts many purchasing forays: one feels that by the end of the year he must have had a lot more stock than at the beginning. As he says in the video “I’ve got more stock than an Oxo cube”.

Customers, as Orwell suggested, inevitably present problems, though discretion perhaps prevents too much open rudeness about them. My queasiness about the entire book is probably the result of a suspicion that the tone of his account of the book world is pretty much the same as mine would be. He often says things of the sort which I am quietly reminded are not as funny as I like to think they are. He even touches on one or two oddities of the book world which I’ve chosen to write about here in the past. Much fun is poked at Nicky, a surprisingly knowledgeable if somewhat erratic assistant, who leads off the rap performance in the video above (the third performer being Anna, Mr Bythell’s American girlfriend).

But despite any reservations I did like the book, and since, with this format, you can’t really have one without the other, I liked the author too, including the books he told us he was reading at the time he was writing his diary. I’m definitely not visiting Wigtown. I might decide to stay.

The Melville House webpage (linked to above) has a nice video featuring Mr Bythell’s helpful advice on Kindle repair. Making videos is one of his sidelines.

Well Amazon’s plan to build a second headquarters in New York City (and in Crystal City, VA) was never of course a book story. The fact that they claimed there would be 25,000 jobs paying on average $150,000 a  year proves that. I wonder if there are that many people in the whole of book publishing making such money. I posted three months ago welcoming the decision to come to New York.

There was a lot of adverse reaction in New York to the fact that the deal had been negotiated in secret (as if negotiations like this can be conducted in public) and that a company as rich as Amazon should be given such large tax breaks. But no special deals were cut: all the tax incentives granted are laid out in state law, and are available to any company which wants to try for them and has an argument to support their case. It’s no doubt true that Amazon doesn’t really need the money, but the fact of the matter is that all cities and states play this game and if we hadn’t done it we would not even have been considered. Sure NYC’s a great place: but Amazon was trolling for tax breaks, and in order to play you needed to pay. I trust the calculations made by our governor and mayor were correct and that we’d have made much more back from taxes and spending over the years than it’d cost.

Amazon have now suddenly cancelled the deal overnight: the mayor of NYC, Bill de Blasio, tells us on the radio this morning that just the day before the cancellation he was on the phone negotiating with a senior Amazon person the details of infrastructure spending the company was committed to making. Now of course a big company (a small company too) has an absolute right to change their corporate mind, but surely at the end of a year-long, publicly self-promoted campaign to provoke cities around the country to knock themselves out attracting the great and good Amazon, the company owed everyone a bit of notice and debate before just walking away from the deal. They can’t really have been surprised at the sort of objections that the original announcement provoked. People in Long Island City were bound to be worried that their rents would go up, and to suspect that they’d not be getting too many of those $100,000+ jobs. Their elected representatives could be relied on to voice these concerns, and while none of us has the inside story, the hassle cannot possibly have seemed too injurious to a company notoriously customer-oriented, and relentless in the pursuit of its objectives.

Is it possibly the case that Amazon’s anti-union position was a major factor? The unions were in negotiation with them and seemed to think they were making progress just a day before the pull-out.

I think Amazon’s sudden withdrawal from their New York deal teaches us two things. Firstly I think it suggests that Amazon probably doesn’t really need a second headquarters. They have said that they won’t be looking to replace the Long Island City establishment in any of the other cities that submitted bids. So it looks like they may have decided they didn’t really need to spend the money building up a new large establishment: they can just cope with things by beefing up staffing in this or that of their current offices around the country.

The second thing we learn relates to the complacency of politicians. They tend to assume that what looks to them to be self-evidently a good thing, will therefore look to be a good thing to the entire population. But the benefits of any deal need to be spelled out. Just because you, who spend your life immersed in politics, know this is the right thing to do, you cannot assume that all the people find it equally obvious. We saw this problem potentially take down a whole country when Britain’s elites blithely assumed that the economic and historical benefits of membership in the EU, which may indeed be obvious to anyone who has thought about the issue (and who remembers World War II) were obvious to people who’d never really thought about it because all their time is spent making a living and getting by, or watching television, responding to their friends’ posts on Instagram, or even God knows reading books. Just because you’re a politician doesn’t mean everyone is. Politicians surely know that emotion plays a larger role in people’s decision-making than reason. Yet Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio spent more time celebrating a big win, than in explaining the reasons why such a win was important.

Oh well, we’ll get by without an Amazon HQ.


Shelf Awareness of 2 January reads:

Hold everything! The flagship McNally Jackson Books location in SoHo in New York City won’t be moving after all, according to Bowery Boogie, which broke the news last October that the store would move this year because of a rent increase.

Bowery Boogie’s report this morning reads in part: “Word on the street is now that the bookstore is to remain at 52 Prince Street. Its home of fourteen years. Several readers relayed word last week that McNally Jackson won’t be moving after all. An employee we spoke to at the store later confirmed.”

Last fall, owner Sarah McNally confirmed that the landlord of the 5,700-square-foot Prince Street store planned to raise the rent to $850,000 from $360,000. She indicated that she was close to signing a lease on a comparable space nearby that the store would move to this year.

McNally opened the Prince Street store in 2004 as McNally Robinson, part of the Canadian chain that her parents founded. In 2008, the store became independent and was renamed McNally Jackson.

McNally Jackson has several other stores. Last year, a second McNally Jackson bookstore opened in Williamsburg in Brooklyn. McNally Jackson also has two Goods for the Study stores, one near the SoHo bookstore and the other in Greenwich Village. And last August, Hudson Group announced that it will open a bookstore with McNally Jackson in LaGuardia Airport’s new Terminal B.

Photo: Christopher Bride/PropertyShark

Obviously welcome news; McNally Jackson is a great bookstore. They were the first NYC bookstore to have an Espresso Book Machine,* which may be less of a plus than we all once hoped it would be. But the bit of the announcement that gets me is that reference to the rent. $850,000! An increase of 236%. On a building that’s there, relatively modern, not by all appearances requiring any extra special maintenance. Just owned by someone who thinks they are entitled to more money. Presumably the new rent has been negotiated to some level between these two numbers: Sarah McNally herself described $360,000 as below market rate. But what a market: just because some clothing chain will pay more, why does that have to mean landlords should get as much as they want? As I have argued before we need to extend rent control from private apartments to essential business premises.


* Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but the main use of the Espresso seems to have become self-publishers printing out copies of their own books. I haven’t asked, but I suspect the function I foresaw in my 2011 post, — printing up a copy of a book that was out of stock at McNally Jackson — is less common than I’d hoped.

Well, I’m not sure this is a battle they can win, but, as Shelf Awareness of 20 December tells us:

“The Golden Notebook, Woodstock, N.Y.*, has an answer for ‘showrooming,’ the habit of some bookstore customers to learn about books at bookstores and then order them online on their phones, sometimes in front of booksellers who just made the recommendation. Last weekend’s experience at the Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, Va., was a timely reminder of this.

At the Golden Notebook, a sign on the front door reads, ‘Please inquire at counter regarding in-store photography. Thank you!’ As a result, wrote co-owner James Conrad, ‘we have no issue approaching a customer photographing and saying “excuse me, we do not allow in-store photography.” We then attempt a teaching conversation about how we struggle against the internet and how hard we work to find the unique and sometimes extremely hard to find types of titles that reflect our unique community and customers. Usually people are extremely apologetic and sometimes they just say nothing because we basically told them we know exactly what they were doing.

‘The sign also gives people the chance to just ask at the counter first and when they say they have a blog and want to promote us or live far away and can’t carry the hardcover home we say go ahead and photograph! (Just make sure to use an independent bookstore when you get home!)’

Conrad added: ‘Without the sign, you seem rude to mention it, but with it you can have a more polite moment to tell people the importance of small businesses and the struggles we face.'”

Now of course I don’t approve of selecting your books in your local bookstore and then buying them at a discount from Amazon, but while I’m sure a “no photography” sign helps, it can’t ever cure the problem. Once upon a time we didn’t all carry a camera around with us all the time, yet we were able, using that subversive technique called memory, or its lame-brained cousin hand-writing, to achieve a similar result. It’s not the cell phones which cause the problem, it’s the fact that on-line retailers can afford to (need to) use discounts to attract custom. Either we have to accept the fact that a proportion of the customers moving through will end up buying elsewhere at the lowest on-line price, or take up arms against the pathology, and offer discounts too. The discount doesn’t have to match Amazon’s, just something, so that people can feel they’ve negotiated a deal. Better to have more traffic than to miss sales surely. Some kind of straight-forward appeal on the subject next to the check-out counter might encourage many buyers to pay the full price: after all, people do buy books from bookstores at full price, and they must by now all be people who are fully aware of the fact that they could get the thing for less elsewhere.

Here comes a story from Vox (via BookRiot) suggesting that social media have in some cases been good for bookstores. Just reinforces the point that it’s people not technology that make the issue (and can overcome it).


* An employee at The Golden Notebook is one of 333 individual booksellers to receive a Christmas bonus of $750 from 2018’s top-earning author James Patterson.