I stumbled across a Sarah Weinman post from a few months ago that posits the notion that the chain bookstore (by which it would appear she means the superstores of the past 20 years, not the chain bookstores in malls that grew up in the prior 20 years) perhaps had a natural life cycle which is now coming to an end. She points out that the investment by Wall Street in the concept of massive destination bookstores enabled their creation, but ultimately resulted in great excess: too many stores with too many square feet to fill and too many books in them that don’t sell.
This is a really good and thoughtful post and I think the observation that the availability of capital built the excess which is now partly responsible for dragging down the structure is correct. But it triggered some additional thoughts that make me want to again trace the history (which I believe has called for smaller bookstores for several years) from before the 1990s when Sarah’s post picks it up and to look at bookstore history through the lens of tech development, which I think both enabled the massive bookstores and is now bringing about their demise.
The core challenge of bookselling — in the past, present, and future, online and in stores, for printed books or digital ones — is curation. How does the bookseller help the reader sort through all of the possible reading choices, of which there are, literally, millions, to find the reader’s next purchase?
In a shop, that curation begins with with what the store management puts on the shop shelves. The overwheming majority of customers in a brick bookstore who buy something choose from what is in the store.
The second line of curation in a shop is in the details of the shelving itself. Is the book face out or spined? Is it at eye-level or ankle-level? Is it on a front table in a stack? Is it displayed in more than one section of the store, which would increase the likelihood it will be seen?
And the third line of curation in a brick bookstore is what the sales personnel know and tell the customers.
In the period right after World War II, there was virtually no technology to help booksellers with curation at all. Sales reps would call (or not) and show catalogs of forthcoming books from which the bookseller would order. There were hundreds of publishers any full-line bookstore would have to do business with. But there weren’t very many full-line bookstores then. Departments stores and small regional chains (Burrows Brothers in Cleveland, Kroch’s & Brentano’s in Chicago) were the principal accounts.
Frankly, what was stocked in most stores then had a huge randomness component. This was the world my father, Leonard Shazkin, encountered when he became Director of Research at Doubleday in 1954 and, a few years later, created the Doubleday Merchandising Plan. By offering the service of tracking the sales in stores, using reps to take physical inventories in the days before computers could track it, Doubleday took the order book out of the bookstore’s hands for the reordering of Doubleday backlist titles. That solved the problem of breaching the first line of curation. And the reps, now freed of the enormously time-consuming task of selling the buyer on backlist reorders title by title, had more time to affect the second and third lines of curation: the display of the books in the stores and the knowledge the store personnel had about Doubleday books. Sales of Doubleday books exploded, approximately quadrupling for the backlist.
In the early 1960s, Len saw the impact of increased selection from the bookstore’s side of the table. He had moved from Doubleday to Crowell-Collier/Macmillan, which owned the Brentano’s chain. He was put in charge. At first, Brentano’s weakest store was its outlet in Short Hills, New Jersey. They doubled the selection of books and, almost instantly, Short Hills became the best-performing store in the chain.
It took until the late 1960s, when shopping centers were springing up across the country, for the first two national book chains, Walden and B. Dalton, to develop and become a serious force in the industry. And in the early 1970s, Ingram and Baker & Taylor became the first national book wholesalers to cover the country with a wide selection of titles. Dalton and Ingram became industry leaders and both were boosted by technology breakthroughs.
Dalton installed smart cash registers that enabled them to key in a number for each book, telling them what had sold. They didn’t use ISBNs, which were in their infancy; Dalton assigned their own SKU (stock-keeping unit) numbers which were stickered onto the books. The system was far from perfect, but it was revolutionary. For the first time, a bookseller and its publisher suppliers knew some real sales data in a timely fashion (Dalton’s numbers were tallied weekly). And the system also enabled Dalton to keep books that were selling in stock through automated means as well.
Ingram was the first wholesaler to employ microfiche technology to tell booksellers what was available right now in their warehouse. The weekly microfiches were, of course, primitive signals of availability compared to today’s instantaneous online capabilities, but this was also a revolutionary breakthrough. It enabled rapid resupply for all stores, including the chains, of the books they sold each day..
In the late 1970s, scanning technology had developed so that the Dalton key-in-the-SKU system could be leapfrogged by Walden using ISBNs at the register, which could often be scanned into the computer record. Also being developed at that time were various methods for automated order processing between publishers and their customers. By the middle of the 1980s, just before the period when Sarah’s narrative begins, bookstores were growing rapidly. The cost of putting the books on the shelves was dropping in relation to sales and the ability to put the right books on the shelves at the right time was enhanced for everybody. Good curation became much cheaper and much easier and, not surprisingly, sales of books grew dramatically.
Paradoxically, the decline of mass-market paperback distribution created new opportunities for the biggest publishers in hardcover. Mass-market grew on the illusory efficiency of forced distribution. For the first two decades after World War II, the rack-sized paperbacks would show up in the pockets at your local drug store or five and dime without a local buyer having to make a selection. That, combined with a much smaller share of margin going to the retailer, paid for the inherent inefficiencies of ham-handed curation. (And, let’s remember, only the covers had to be sent back for “returns”.)
But as paperbacks became more important and more mainstream, the biggest customers of the local wholesalers who racked them wanted better margins and more control. And the sales volumes had built to the point that many of them could now afford a buyer to deal directly with a number of mass market publishers, so the best accounts started shifting to direct. This weakened the original distribution network, but it opened up the opportunity for publishers to put books other than the rack-sized paperbacks into what had been rack-only accounts.
The first probes with larger trade paperbacks were with romance authors like Rosemary Rogers. The mass channels were more comfortable trying an experiment with format and price with authors they already knew.
The first great exploitation of mass distribution for what was really a trade book was by Peter Mayer (the boss) and Bill Shinker (the marketer) at Avon with the book “The People’s Pharmacy” in about 1975. Avon, a paperback house that published a lot of romance titles, had been one of the pioneers putting the larger books into the mass channel.
Bantam then used the technique for hardcovers, again starting with authors the mass channel already knew like Louis L’Amour and Clive Cussler, before hitting a massive all-channels mass-market home run with “Iacocca” in 1985. (And thanks to Jack Romanos, who was running things there then, for helping me get my recollections straight.)
The increased efficiency of distribution through technology and disintermediation in turn enabled discounting. Crown Books built a chain in the 1980s which mostly sold remainders and bargain books but carried a good selection of current titles with bestsellers deeply discounted. This fueled a further increase in unit sales.
Meanwhile, independent bookstores beginning to use primitive computerized inventory management systems were proving repeatedly what Brentano’s had demonstrated to Len Shatzkin in 1963: a big selection of books attracts a very substantial clientele. So technologically-driven efficiency lent a hand to delivering a more attractive selection (curation) by making it a bigger selection.
And in the late 1980s, these two things — the Crown discounting attraction and the independents large selection attraction — were combined by entrepreneurs in Austin, Texas, who created a store called Bookstop that provided both. Bookstop became the prototype “super” bookstore and, before long, Wall Street money was financing Barnes & Noble (which had bought Dalton) and Borders (which had bought Walden) to roll out these bookselling behemoths nationwide.
Which is where Sarah’s post kicks in. But in the context of what came before, I’d add one element she didn’t to the analytical mix. It created a paradigm shift in curation using technology. It’s called Amazon dot com.
While even the largest bookstore had shelf space limiting its title selection, Amazon did not. Through good luck (licensing the Baker & Taylor database which contained a lot of out-of-print titles), good thinking (providing a clear “promise date” for the available books and assisting people’s search efforts by telling them explicitly if a book was not available), and brilliant execution (Amazon’s hallmark from its first moment until the present day), Amazon completely shifted the psychology of book shopping.
Until Amazon, if you wanted any particular book or if you didn’t know exactly what you wanted, your best strategy was to go to the shop with the biggest selection to try to find it. Once Amazon happened, the magnet of in-store selection lost its power for many customers. If you knew what you wanted and you didn’t need it right this minute, the most efficient way to buy it would be to go to Amazon and order it. Customers who would have been browsing store aisles and, if necessary, placing special orders with their bookstore, now just shopped online.
I first saw what is clearly the impact of this through some work I did with Barnes & Noble sales data for university presses about a decade ago. In the recent years before that work, starting in the late 1990s, Barnes & Noble had tried to expand its selection of university press titles. This was applying a time-honored understanding of curation to improve the store selection.
But the results were beyond disappointing. Sales were not rising for the university presses; returns were. What became increasingly clear was that professors, the biggest market for university press books, were a leading edge demographic shifting their buying online. Makes sense, really, considering that they were often finding out about the books they wanted to order through something that had occurred online!
It was at that time — about 2002 or 2003 — that the late Steve Clark, then sales rep for Cambridge University Press and one of the publishers I was working with, told me that Amazon was a bigger account for his company than all other US retailers combined.
This was a big “aha” for me. I had grown up with the Brentano’s “selection” story and had seen it demonstrated over and over again throughout my career that increasing the title selection in a location increased the traffic and increased the sales. Technology had changed the reality. The magnetic power of a physical space full of books to bring in shoppers had been weakened. The surest way to find something that wasn’t as ubiquitous as a current bestseller remained a visit the store with the most selection. But that store was no longer in a building. It was in your computer.
And, ultimately, that is the single most powerful force bringing the era of the super bookstore to an end.
Of course, massive selection is only the first aspect of curation and the other parts are not nearly so well done online. Or, at least, they haven’t been yet. This is a major conundrum for the industry as bookstores fade and it’s the reason three big publishers have financed the startup Bookish. The stores depend on the publishers’ metadata to do this work and the publishers’ depend on the stores’ systems and merchandising creativity. Perhaps partly because the necessary collaboration hasn’t occurred, an effective online equivalent to in-store browsing hasn’t yet been developed.