Archives for category: Bookstores

Tomorrow — though don’t let that stop you buying one today too.

When Barnes & Noble closed their Co-op City store we were told than the Bronx now had no bookshops. Sort of true, though there are of course still places there where you can buy a book. Noelle Santos has plans to remedy the situation, and the ABA suggests we might like to support her. You can donate at Indiegogo.

Can’t remember the author and title of that book that fascinated you as a child, or even just a couple of years ago? Stump the bookseller to the rescue. Tell them what you can remember and, with any luck, they’ll get the answer back to you courtesy of a crowdsourced readership. The New York Times Magazine had a little write-up in their 19 March 2017 issue.

This is almost the opposite of algorithm-based recommendation systems: here you crowdsource the dark corners of readers’ memories in order to identify a book about which you’ve forgotten everything except for the couple of niggling incidents or characters you can’t get out of your mind. Pay your $4 and Loganberry Book’s site, Stump the bookseller will list your query where the multitudes can add precision.

I suppose this sort of thing isn’t worth programming up as an AI app. If only we were blessed with memory systems of the sort of precision that such an app might need to work with (though then of course we’d probably remember the title). Unfortunately the nature of human memory is such that what we remember is often actually wrong in some slight but critical detail buried within its cloudy vagueness. Computer programs like precision: human minds deal in cloudy nuance much better.

PMS 342

The one book whose title I might like to be reminded of is one of which I can remember nothing except that it had a cloth case in a dark green, sort of like PMS 342, was printed in black & white, had a few line illustrations, was in a smallish format, about 5″ x 7″ maybe, and also contained disfiguring drawings added by its youthful, and doubtless slightly bored, owner. Unfortunately that’d stump any crowd of bookseller’s friends. And besides, if I did know the title, what’d I do about it? Maybe check whether the book really was all that boring. I think that in the post-WWII period, when luxuries were less common, one would feel guilty for not enjoying a book on which someone had spent money.

Everyman a publisher nowadays. We don’t only have to look out for authors publishing their own stuff, and libraries and agents too, but bookstores can easily get in on the act, especially those with Espresso Book Machines.


Shelf Awareness brings us the news. “Just before Inauguration Day, January 20, Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, Mass., printed a book containing the farewell speeches delivered by President Obama and Michelle Obama just before his term ended, the Boston Globe reported.

Called Barack Obama & Michelle Obama: Farewell Speeches, the 72-page book was printed on Paige M. Gutenborg, the store’s Espresso Book Machine. The material is in the public domain.

Marketing manager Alex Meriwether told the paper that the book was produced by the staff, with the cover designed by the bookstore manager. ‘It’s a fulfilling experience reading it as well as listening to it.'”

I dare say the Obamas are making enough on their pair of Crown books not to have any concern about this publication of public domain material, other than to welcome it. All publicity is good publicity.

Much of bookstore “publishing” consists of printing a book written by one of their customers, so more a matter of self-publishing rather than bookstore publishing. But it needn’t be restricted to that and to books which publishers have authorized for printing locally on the Espresso, as the Boston Globe story shows. For people who can’t bear to read an e-book this may be the avenue to pursue. If there’s a suitable file on-line for any public domain work you can potentially get a bookshop to print out a paperback book for you (for a fee of course). This seems to me an extremely liberating situation. It’s also a return to the early days of the book business where there weren’t businesses called publisher: there were printers and booksellers.

The Robinson–Patman Act, sponsored by Senator Joseph Taylor Robinson (D-AR) and Representative John William Wright Patman (D-TX), is a United States federal law passed in 1936 prohibiting price discrimination and other anticompetitive practices by producers. The law was needed because chain stores had been able to purchase goods at lower prices than other retailers, thus enabling them to discount their retail prices. The new law required the seller offer the same price terms to customers of the same type. Publishers have been bound by this law ever since.

There has been quite a bit of litigation about differential pricing in the book business. Wikipedia tells us: “In 1994, the American Booksellers Association and independent bookstores filed a federal complaint in New York against Houghton Mifflin Company, Penguin USA, St. Martin’s Press and others, alleging that defendants had violated the Robinson–Patman Act by offering ‘more advantageous promotional allowances and price discounts’ to ‘certain large national chains and buying clubs.’ Later, complaints were filed against Random House and Putnam Berkley Group, and these cases also were later settled with the entry of similar consent decrees. Eventually, seven publishers entered consent decrees to stop predatory pricing, and Penguin paid $25 million to independent bookstores when it continued the illegal practices. In 1998, the ABA (which represented 3,500 bookstores) and 26 individual stores filed suit in Northern California against chain stores Barnes & Noble and Borders Group, who had reportedly pressured publishers into offering these price advantages.” Since that time publishers have been careful to avoid this sort of trouble. Things like promotional allowances still muddy the waters and much care has to be devoted to terminology. Our Sales Director used to pace up and down muttering “Robinson–Patman, Robinson–Patman”.

At the end of last year at The Digital Reader, Randy J. Morris discussed the Robinson–Patman Act in connection with Amazon’s bricks-and-mortar stores. I’m not sure, though I’m a legal naïve, that Amazon’s offering variable pricing in their bookshops is any different than their offering that same prices on-line. If the discounts they get from publishers which enable them to offer their on-line discounts to customers are OK by Robinson–Patman, I don’t really see why a physical bookstore would alter the situation. As far as I know nobody’s bringing suit.



You can’t activate the links in the screenshot below. Here’s a link to the show.


Mass market paperbacks in non-bookstore locations were usually supplied by a wholesaler who’s rep would turn up and “restock the shelves”. The retailers only cared that the books should sell, not whether their inventory included this or that title. People didn’t tend to go to the drug store to ask after the latest bestseller: there they would buy on impulse. The Shatzkin Files carried an interesting consideration of the stocking technique last year. Mr Shatzkin’s father, Leonard, was it turns out something of a pioneer in this area, establishing the Doubleday Merchandising Plan.

One might have thought that bookstores would have been resistant to someone telling them which books they should stock — after all aren’t they the ones who are in close touch with their local audience — but about 800 stores signed up for the Doubleday plan (though maybe they were mostly non-bookstores). But it does seem like an idea which might work. And now would seem to be an even more propitious moment for Vendor Managed Inventory than 1957 when the Doubleday Plan was introduced. Cheap computing allows us to know what’s selling where almost in real time. Your exposé on election fraud is selling fast in Duluth — send ’em some more. That bright and bushy-tailed first novel is doing well in Seattle — off go more copies. Of course it doesn’t work like that: the publishers don’t presume to send books on spec, they wait instead for the bookstores to place their own orders. A rep may call the store to suggest that they might reorder, but few publishers will presume to ship books without an order. And yet they could: we have the knowledge and could surely earn the trust. And of course we do accept returns!

No real reason to stop at this level of the business continuum. Publishers could easily have printers monitor the publisher’s inventory and autonomously print more copies for supply into the publisher’s warehouse at the moment before existing stock is depleted. All that’s needed is trust that giving your printers access to your inventory planning data isn’t something that they’d abuse. As they have precious little motive for doing so, and plenty pointing them in the other direction, this is a trivial problem. You’d want of course to have confidence that they’d act on the information and not leave you book-less.

There is precedent. For years paper merchants have been putting paper on the floor at various book printers. The printer’s customers will call for the use this paper from time to time; the printer uses it for the printing and reports usage; the merchant will bill for the usage, and monitor stocks so they can ship in more paper when the inventory runs down.

Beware, manufacturing department staff. I am probably not the only one to have had this thought.

As defined at Eduscapes, the chapbook was “a small (4 x 6 inches), pocket-sized pamphlet. Although the term ‘chapbook’ was coined in the 19th century, this ephemeral literature was introduced in the 17th century. The term comes from the Old English word ‘chap’ meaning deal, barter, or business. These books were often sold door-to-door by salesmen known as chapmen. Printers would provide these salesmen books on credit to sell around the countryside.”

I think it’s overstating things to treat chapbook as an obsolete word which has gone out of use, as the Oxford English Dictionary does. Anne Carson’s recently published “book” Float describes itself as  “A collection of twenty-two chapbooks whose order is unfixed and whose topics are various”  adding the slightly ominous invitation “Reading can be freefall”. The OED entry hasn’t been updated since 1889 however, so they can maybe claim that the word’s use as a description of a little poetry pamphlets is a recent development. I rather prefer Chambers’ definition — “a book or pamphlet of a popular type such as was hawked by chapmen”. It’s nice when a dictionary has attitude.

The idea of an itinerant bookseller seems so utterly romantic that I find myself surprised that no such people exist today. Well, not that surprised: it is after all hard enough to make living as a regular bookseller. Once upon a time I was employed for one day as an itinerant Encyclopedia salesman. We descended on an American base somewhere near Mannheim and tried to persuade servicemen that their children’s development would be utterly compromised if they didn’t buy our multivolume encyclopedia, available on “attractive hire-purchase terms”. I quit after finding myself compelled to talk my first customers out of their resolve to buy the damn thing. They just seemed too nice to exploit thus.

Chapmen may mainly be remembered as itinerant booksellers, but they sold all sorts of stuff. The chapman billies Tam O’Shanter observed in the streets of Ayr were no doubt selling items other than books. I can remember little old vans that used to come up to my uncle’s farm just after the war selling odds and ends of immense variety out of the back: no doubt these were the few surviving remnants of Tam’s buddies. The chap in chapman comes from the Old English ceáp, Old Saxon côp, to barter or trade. In German it remains more evident as choufman > Kaufmann, which remains the word for a merchant in general. Chap, as in lad, derives from an extension of the same root, by way of customer/buyer/person easily beguiled. The original meaning remains current if rare as to cheapen: to hondel, chaffer, haggle or bargain the price down. Less stressfully it does also mean to ask the price of an item. Stress and guilt feelings may haunt those of us who participated in the late twentieth century rush to cheapen books (as in make them cheaper) by using ever trashier materials and processes, so that what we publishers offer you now is an embarrassingly debased product.

“’What I mean by that is you can be the best ice salesman in America until the refrigerator comes out,’ Edwards said. ‘You can be driving your taxi one day and Uber knocks you out the next day. You can be in the hotel business and then Airbnb can surround you with 20 properties with a great size at a lower cost. I think you have to face the digital impact head on and not go through denial and don’t rely on past tactics to change the trajectory of the company because it doesn’t work anymore.’”

Mike Edwards was the CEO who had to take the Borders bookstore chain into liquidation. I’m not sure what exactly he means by facing “the digital impact head on” and maybe he doesn’t either. It’s a bit like the tsunami that hit Fukushima: TEPCO may or may not have “faced it head on” but facing up some things isn’t going to make any difference to the outcome. It’s hard for a company to turn and run for the hills. Changing the trajectory of a corporation sounds like a reasonable aim, but what really does it mean? Selling clothing instead of books, or as well as books, or clothing with extracts from books printed on it. If you are in books, and what your staff knows about is books, what really are your options? Sell a bit of other stuff — B&N’s now almost the only place you can go to buy a CD. But that’s not really enough is it? Still I guess these guys get the big bucks to come up with the big ideas. The Edwards story comes from Retail Dive via The Passive Voice.

The soon-to-be-closed Bronx store.

The soon-to-be-closed Bronx store.








Barnes & Noble has outlasted Borders, but rumblings keep on surfacing. Here’s Mike Shatzkin’s take on the recent New Yorker article which has garnered a lot of attention. Like Mr Shatkin I am doubtful that smaller stores with better food and coffee is the real answer*. Mr Riggio may have a point that people will tend to go to the bookstore that’s nearest to them, but that surely doesn’t mean that you can succeed à la Starbucks by setting up a cute little store on every corner. The most important points that come across in this discussion are the strength of B & N’s distribution network, and the fact that bookstores which are set up to cater to their local audience are the sorts of independent bookstores which are prospering nowadays. Maybe a giant conglomerate can mimic a collection of small, quirky, independent-minded store managers — but I doubt it. The share price won’t tolerate the right to fail (or even to fail to prosper quickly). As soon as stores of one stripe start underperforming, they’ll be told to do it the right, the corporate way. I suspect that independent thinking and public ownership are just mutually incompatible. Parenthetically, dare I point out that the corporate aesthetic strikes me as pretty dire.

It doesn’t matter how many books a shop stocks. What matters, obviously, is that they stock the right books, and that they care about them. Staff who are excited about the books on their shelves will be able to talk them up. Staff who are receiving scaled-out inventory allocations may be interested in some titles, but won’t have the same enthusiasm. Plus, if you have a gigantic store it’s not too surprising that customers will often find it hard to locate a sales person even if there is one there behind the ranks of shelves — and if you have a question you need to ask, this can be infuriating enough to make you swear never to darken their door again. In Three Lives you can’t ever be out of the sight of an employee: there’s just no room for that. (Good news: Three Lives’ lease is being renewed. They will not have to move. Seems not all real estate interests are utterly conscienceless.)

I am most struck by the observation that professors don’t go to B & N for their specialized monographs any longer. This makes perfect sense: if you know the book won’t be there, why would you waste your time trekking into your nearby B & N so that they can special order the book for you and make you came back and get it a week later. You might do this at your local indie bookstore, letting them get the book for you as a gesture of support. In the past these were your only options of course. Now you’d most likely get the book from Amazon. If B & N really has such an efficient network of warehouses, could they not promise two-day delivery to the customer’s door?

Leaving aside institutional purchasing for a library or school system, buying a book is a thoughtful choice made by an individual. It’s a small-scale one-to-one transaction. The idea that a mass audience can be drawn in to a massive, well-stocked store has been tried and while it may have worked in the past now seems to have passed its sell-by date. Time to move on. I hope Mr Riggio can come up with a cunning plan. As far as I can see I think the best strategy would be to become an alternative to Amazon, and focus on, leveraging those distribution warehouses. I have no idea whether this can generate sales sufficient to keep a big organization going (or even succeed at all).


* I’ve never thought about what it’d be appropriate to eat while reading this or that book. Quirk Books makes a small stab at this important subject.

Chandra Johnson has a nice article at Deseret News under the title What do Americans Lose if Bookstores Disappear? More than you think. The author runs through lots of nice things we all love about books and bookstores. The piece seems to have been stimulated by Keith Houston’s The Book, recently published by Norton. Unsurprisingly that volume is a paean to the book, something all of us can agree that we love.

As I say it’s a nice atmospheric piece, but it’s based on false premises. Perhaps the key sentence in this regard is “If books are reflections of human history and development, the existence of bookstores arguably shows how a society prioritizes knowledge, personal growth and access to those virtues — quite a thing to lose given the shaky state of the publishing industry.” Wow! Are books “reflections of human history and development”? Not sure I really know what that’d mean. Maybe some are, but masses and masses of them have nothing to do with human history and development do they? Does the existence of bookstores show “how a society prioritizes knowledge”? “Arguably”, as she says, but I suspect it’s an argument you’d never win except in the trivial sense that if there’s any bookshop with a copy of a book on, say, fluid dynamics, that shows that fluid dynamics is a type of knowledge that we prioritize. This isn’t saying much, if anything. The rest of that clause is just there to add apparent weight to the weightlessness. I don’t think any bookshop can show me anything other than a tiny selection of what one person (the buyer) thinks people in that neighborhood might be interested in buying. In so far as they are prioritizing, they are prioritizing by salebility. This tells us something I dare say, but it’s not something about “human history and development” or those mysterious “virtues”.

Whatever all these things may actually be though, they are undoubtedly regarded by Ms. Johnson as good things. But they are apparently at risk as a result of “the shaky state of the publishing industry”. Come off it. The publishing industry can’t win! On the one hand we get told off for being fat cats lounging about in flashy New York offices defrauding starving authors out of the bread their bestselling works should be delivering to them, and on the other we are told we are part of an industry going through its death throes. Wake up world. The book publishing industry is not dying. It’s not even in a “shaky state”. It’s rudely healthy thank you. Just like any industry there are parts of the business facing problems, but overall we sell  an amazingly large quantity of books, mostly printed, but also now digital.

In a much more positive, down-to-earth take on the subject, bookseller Jeremy Garber writes at Literary Hub a concrete, straight-forward description of why working in a bookstore is satisfying, and why the service a bookstore provides is likely to continue. This is the right way to help: reminding us what we need bookstores to do for us, not flooding us with overwrought sentimentality about what we risk losing.

We are all agreed that we don’t want to see the end of bookstores, but harping on about how much we love their smell will do absolutely nothing to help. It’s nice to tell how much we’d miss them if they were gone, but that’s not really doing any good. Mr Garber shows that bookstores will survive because the public wants bookstores. Let’s hope people want them enough to spend sufficient money there to allow them to cover their costs and make a bit of profit too.

I posted about all this a couple of months ago. Let’s stop the vaporing about the ineffable, and go out and buy a book, maybe The Book.