Chain Reaction

Do bookstores have a future?

Backed by financial muscle and heavy inventories, chains demanded lower wholesale prices to deeply discount bestsellers—a practice that had previously been illegal until the final repeal of anti-monopoly fair-trade laws in 1975. Chains also wanted more co-op money—the product placement fees publishers pay for prominent display. If subsidizing chains through overstock returns and co-op money wasn't enough of an irony for publishers, they also found themselves competing with a chain. Barnes & Noble's proprietary publishing house is now thriving—and its success such a touchy subject that in a March 16 investor conference call CEO Steve Riggio wouldn't break out its sales figures. "We're not investing in intellectual properties that have a lot of high risk associated with them," was all Riggio would say, citing such genres as puzzles, astrology, and woodworking.

Critics can sniff at that. But there still remains one irreducible fact about chains: People like shopping at them.


illustration: Melinda Beck

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  • Like milk in a grocery store, the kids' section of a Barnes & Noble is almost always placed far from the entrance. Why?

    Simple: B&N children's sections are a customer magnet, and possibly the most child-friendly and parentally designed spaces in the history of retailing. There are low shelves, allowing good sight lines so that you can see your kid. There's carpeting for inevitable toddler face-plants. A train table to play at. Comfy chairs for the parents. A single exit in sight of those chairs, so that your kid can't bolt. Sit in the Barnes & Noble kids' section, and their populist rhetoric makes sense. Some indie bookstores are not just figuratively exclusionary: If you have a stroller or a wheelchair, you literally cannot get inside some of them.

    Superstores, with their SUV-wide center aisles and Rachael Ray displays, surely beg for hipster sneers. But what about when those hipsters have kids or get old?

    This is why discounts alone do not account for the success of chains—as Mitchell Kaplan notes dismissively, "Most of their books are not discounted." Yet chains remain almost ridiculously pleasant places to shop. How? By brilliantly mirroring the country's best innovations in bookselling. Like nearly everything else about Barnes & Noble, their children's section is not really new at all. The child-friendly bookstore within a store, as Rebel Bookseller author Laties points out in an e-mail to the Voice, was around as early as the 1940s, when the Carson Pirie Scott department store pioneered the concept. The in-store café? That first appeared at Upstart Crow and Kramerbooks & Afterwords in the 1970s. In-house publishing? Doubleday. Library-like burnished woods and comfy chairs? Brentano's. Computerized inventory control? That would be another chain altogether: B. Dalton . . . which Barnes & Noble acquired.

    As comedian Steven Wright once observed, it's the second mouse that gets the cheese.


    Independent stores haven't taken this lying down. Chain competition has forced them to become better run, and Kaplan cites initiatives like Above the Treeline, a software suite that gives indies the deep inventory and sales analysis currently enjoyed by chains. There's also, he notes, customer education through programs like ABA's Book Sense. But Miller's Reluctant Capitalists remains skeptical of Book Sense's efforts to beat chains at their own online and branding games, and with reason. With co-op money, slick inventory control, proprietary publishing, and unheard-of financial muscle—Barnes & Noble's latest quarterly report shows no debt and a staggering $373 million in cash—the playing field has precipitously tilted toward chains.

    Today's field, though, may not be the future's. Superstores live and die by generous zoning, massive inventory, co-op money, and deep discounts. Zoning laws may stiffen, return policies change, or price controls curtail loss-leader strategies. All these possibilities, however unlikely, have precedents; indeed, it was the owner of Nantucket Bookworks who last month spearheaded a chain store ban in that island's downtown. Ultimately, though, the greatest vulnerability of chains may be their muscle-bound nature. If print-on-demand technology, though still poky and faintly disreputable, ever achieves the availability and quality of traditional books, the need for overstock returns, remainders, and huge retail spaces may evaporate.

    Strange to say, someday superstores may be the historical curiosity that indies are now in danger of becoming.


    Paul Collins's books include Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books (Bloomsbury).

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