The Boston Phoenix
April 22 - 29, 1999


Shelf life

Independent bookstores are banding together in a national push to save their businesses. There's more than nostalgia at stake.

by Michelle Chihara

Independent bookstores are the baby seals of small business -- vulnerable, endangered, and an almost sacred cause. Book people love to lament their fate; the press, in many cases, has taken to speaking about them in the past tense, as if they were an antique institution like drugstore soda fountains. The New York Times Magazine recently described independents as the "bookstores that everyone accuses Barnes & Noble and Borders of all but wiping off the face of the earth."

It's not exactly a mistaken impression: the American Booksellers Association, the trade group for independent retailers of new books, has seen its membership drop from 5300 stores to 3300 since 1992. In the Boston area alone, three specialty bookstores have closed in recent years. The chains, in the meantime, have rolled out hundreds upon hundreds of branches since the early '90s, many of them sprawling, library-size "superstores."

The paperless bookstore

The bookstore of the future might look nothing like either Barnes & Noble or Brookline Booksmith.

Instead, imagine a neighborhood "bookhouse." Light streams in from tall French windows; some customers browse magazines at a coffee bar that runs along one wall, while others sink into overstuffed couches. The staff roams around and chats with patrons. Staffers might recommend a neighborhood book group; they might help a man download the right book about coping with his rebellious teenage daughter.

The one thing the staff doesn't do here is sell books. The texts themselves, after all, are free. Cover art, autographs, and binding materials for a volume printed to your specifications are for sale. You do all the purchasing online, through the bookhouse, which has on-demand arrangements with printers and distributors. The book itself arrives by courier. The bookhouse staff are paid only to be informed, literate, and helpful.

And maybe to serve coffee.

This is the kind of future envisioned by Web prophets such as Nicholas Negroponte of MIT's Media Lab, a future where "bookstores aren't stores, but places you go for a serendipitous experience, to meet people, have a cup of coffee." The "bookhouse" might sound like an extreme, but it's a logical extension of several current trends. With the growth of e-commerce and the approach of on-demand printing, physical bookstores are realizing their value as "destinations" as much as suppliers.

It's a scenario to which, ironically, independent bookstores would be well suited. If inventory becomes completely virtual, true expertise will become a bigger competitive advantage. "But clearly a large percentage of books are going to be sold online," says Len Vlahos, of the American Booksellers Association. "And independent bookstores are well suited to being the successful bricks-and-mortar seller in that environment, because it becomes about the experience, not the commodity. Experientially, we'll be the ones who'll be the winner, because of that human connection."

The challenge facing independent bookstores has been complicated in the past four years by the success of, the online retailer that calls itself "Earth's biggest bookstore," and which now boasts eight million customers. In 1997, it was joined on the Web by, which now has more than a million customers and claims to sell the largest number of titles anywhere. If the baby seals were in danger before, now it's as if someone has given the hunters laser harpoons.

For all the sentiment attached to the issue, there is more at stake in the bookselling field than our collective nostalgia for a lost kind of retailing, or even than the livelihood of a few thousand independent businesspeople. Bookstores, after all, traffic not just in paper and cardboard, but in content. In the book market, a diversity of retailers translates very directly into a diversity of ideas.

"There are lots of reasons to fight for the independent bookstore," says Rusty Drughan, president of the New England Booksellers Association, "but the two primary ones have to do with freedom of expression and the flourishing of ideas -- with the very possibility of social change."

After a decade of watching their market share slowly erode, independent bookstores have begun to take action as a group. On February 5, the American Booksellers Association (ABA) announced a new project: "Book Sense," both a national marketing strategy and a Web site, designed to save the independent way of life.

Whether the indies' survival strategy succeeds is important not just for them, but for everyone. The question is whether it's too little, too late. The future of bookselling is clearly molded in the independents' image, but will they have a place in it?

Standing among the dark wood shelves and ladders of Cambridge's Harvard Book Store, Dan Albano, the store's "academic liaison," has a rumpled, professorial charm. He's very much a salesman -- "Ask me for one, I'll show you four," he says -- but he's also passionate about what's between the covers of his product. A Cambridge native and 13-year veteran of the store, Albano describes his areas of expertise as "philosophy, literary criticism, politics . . . oh, some of everything." He knows many of the academics who come through his doors by face as well as by name; crushing a beige scally cap in his hands, he describes a visit from the president of Dartmouth College with the enthusiasm of a fan describing an encounter with a rock star.

Albano's job title reflects a decades-long symbiosis between the store and its surrounding neighborhood. Owner Frank Kramer, whose father founded the business in 1932, has watched his store evolve from a purveyor of bargain used books and remainders into a general bookstore with scholarly specialization. "We have a large community of scholars," Kramer says, "so our inventory began to reflect that. Our motto is access to the world of ideas."

With its oak and carpeting, its author events, and its 65-year relationship with its neighborhood, Harvard Book Store is the kind of place people think about when they picture a quality bookstore. And as recently as the 1980s, this was the primary face of retail bookselling. At their peak in the late '80s and early '90s, independent stores such as Harvard Book Store -- and Brookline Booksmith, and Cambridge's WordsWorth Books -- could claim more than 30 percent of the entire national book market. "It was the heyday of independent bookselling," says Richard Howorth, president of the ABA. It was also the heyday of bookselling in general: in 1985, America led the world in book-title production (it's now fourth or fifth), and "consumer book-purchasing figures rose at incredible percentages," Howorth says. It was an independent bookseller's market. Indeed, the nation's first superstores were independently owned: huge, polished book destinations like the Tattered Cover, in Denver, Colorado; Powell's, in Portland, Oregon; and Cody's Books, in Berkeley, California. Chain bookstores, meanwhile, were mostly sterile mass-market outlets like B. Dalton and the now-defunct Crown Books, designed more to move bestsellers and calendars than to draw the literary crowd.

The heyday of independent bookselling, however, didn't last past the early '90s. "Corporate and capital powers saw what was going on," says Howorth, "and began imitating the feel of these independent stores." They also began outgunning them in square footage, publishing-industry clout, and marketing power. Today there are more than 500 Barnes & Noble superstores, and every one of them looks a lot like the Harvard Book Store, or an old private library -- forest-green carpets, dark wood, and brass fixtures. The superstore chain Borders Books and Music cultivates an airy, university-library feel -- not surprising, since Borders began as an independent bookseller in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (After Borders expanded to 19 stores, Kmart bought the business for $190 million in 1992 and built it into a nationwide chain before spinning it off in 1995.)

The superstores now average between 30,000 and 50,000 square feet each, with more than 150,000 titles. That's five times the size and three to five times the selection of the average independent. Big stores aren't always a bad thing; in some suburban and underserved areas, they bring book lovers access to a better, deeper selection. But in the markets already built and served by strong independent booksellers, competition has been ugly.

"The chain stores don't just imitate independents in generic ways," Howorth says. "In Austin, Texas, a Barnes & Noble located next to a well-known children's bookstore called Toad Hall got a big toad and put it in their children's section. That's not something Barnes & Noble does in other stores." Industry insiders say that the chains will home in on the local markets of significant independent stores. In Brookline, for instance, Barnes & Noble opened a branch right up the block from 38-year-old independent Brookline Booksmith. In Denver, the first wave of Barnes & Nobles pinned the four corners of the city around Joyce Meskis's indie powerhouse the Tattered Cover, and the chain has opened eight stores in her area since then. "We're talking," says Howorth, "about very specific predatory activity."

In part, the chains act aggressively because book retailers are fighting each other for shares of a stagnant market. Overall adult book sales have been flat for at least two years. It's a zero-sum game, at best, and the independents' market share has dwindled to 17 percent of books sold. The chains, meanwhile, have grown to more than a quarter of the market.

Those numbers represent more than a shift in who sells you books; they represent a shift in what we get to read. The independents' share of the market is divided among three thousand to four thousand stores, each with a different location, a different owner, and a different buyer making decisions about what to stock. With chains, however, an increasing majority of the buying decisions for their entire share of the market come from the corporate offices of just two companies: Barnes & Noble in New York City and Borders in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

"Nationals operate based upon economies of scale," says Harvard's Kramer, "so central buying is how they want to work. If you put a local buyer in every bookstore, your costs go up." Consolidated buying gives the chains dramatic power over what gets sold. And that power, some say, has already had an adverse effect on the market.

"Through superstore expansion," says Howorth, "sales of 300,000-plus-copy sellers have increased steadily. That figure, when taken with the figure that absolute sales have decreased, means that so-called midlist books, smaller books, marginal authors, and books from small presses are simply not making it to print."

To Howorth, increasing homogeneity could even explain the stagnation of the American book market. "My theory," he says, "is that the market is stimulated by independent booksellers. They're incubators and catalysts for new ideas, new authors, and new growth."

One of those new authors is Arthur Golden, a Brookline resident and author of Memoirs of a Geisha. Golden credits much of his initial success to the independents' "hand-selling," the industry term for talking to a customer about the merits of a specific book. "It was a big book, 430 pages or so, from an unknown author on an exotic subject," he says. "That's a three-tiered death sentence for a new book. My book was absolutely hand-sold by the independents.

"The Wall Street Journal bestsellers list only reports figures from the chains, and [Memoirs] didn't even appear in the top 15 for a while. It was one or two or three at most indies, and at the same time it wasn't even on the Wall Street Journal list."

The book spent two months under the radar before it hit the New York Times bestseller list, where it has stayed since the fall of 1997. If Golden is right, then in eight weeks the indies managed to move a book out of obscurity and into the limelight. "Without independents, I don't know what would have come of this book," he says.

Golden is far from alone. Barbara Kingsolver wrote a lament for a Tucson independent in the Arizona Daily Star, saying, "I owe my career to people such as those at the Book Mark who first guided readers to my words." On the local level, over at Harvard Book Store, Dan Albano claims to have single-handedly placed academic titles such as Sex and Social Justice, by Martha Nussbaum, or the more arcane From Stimulus to Science, by W.V. Quine, on the Boston Globe's bestseller list.

Albano selected those books for author readings, and he and the other staff at Harvard also choose the books that go in the window displays and featured-book shelves. Contrast this with the Barnes & Noble in downtown Boston, where the books in the windows and on the prominent display shelves -- as well as the books displayed on tables throughout the store -- are dictated by marketing deals between the corporate office in New York and individual publishers.

Independent bookstores are not saints in this respect, either: some of them do accept payments for featuring certain books in their windows. Some of them might have started accepting such payments long ago, according to Andy Ross, owner of Cody's Books in Berkeley, California, except that publishers tend to offer the plum packages only to the chains. Those types of deals are the subject of a lawsuit that's now in discovery in a district court in California. Twenty-six independent booksellers are suing Barnes & Noble and Borders for engaging in "a pattern and practice of soliciting, inducing, and receiving secret, discriminatory, and illegal terms from publishers and distributors."

"It isn't that independents are all great, or that chains are all bad," says Ross. "The important thing is that they're all different. It's the diversity in the distribution of ideas that would otherwise be lacking. The chains are much too powerful."

By its nature, that power tends to squash the smaller, more marginal voices. Neil Gordon, editor of the Boston Review's New Fiction Forum and a long-time veteran of the book industry, believes that the corporatization of the book world squeezes out books that might not sell, but might matter.

"If you're only applying economic criteria," he says, "well, then a book that sells only two or three thousand copies can't be sold. A book of that sort is less well stocked by chain booksellers, less well handled by big book distributors. It has to be. They're looking to make a profit, and they've got stockholders to take care of."

Gordon, who's also a novelist, has worked on all sides of the book-publishing industry: bookselling, publishing, running a Web site. "The problem," he says, "is that books are a particular kind of product. You can't say that a book that sells a million copies is necessarily better. In the future, it [the smaller book] might turn out to be a classic. It might, even now, be changing people's lives, just not as many. Does that book deserve not to be published?"

These issues may seem abstract. But Cody's Andy Ross points out that they have concrete ramifications. "In 1989, when the Iranian government issued its death threat against Salman Rushdie, Barnes & Noble, B. Dalton, and Waldenbooks yanked The Satanic Verses from their shelves nationwide," he says. "Over 1500 bookstores stopped selling The Satanic Verses because of a decision by a few corporate executives. It's only because independents continued to carry the book -- at least most of us did, even in the face of considerable threats -- that the book continued to be available to the American public." His own bookstore was bombed during that time, Ross recalls, but he says he'd sell the book again.

"Had the Rushdie affair occurred today," Ross says, "there are huge markets that would not have this book available, because independent bookstores no longer exist in many markets."

In 1995, a new player entered the book game -- one that would, incidentally, make it a little harder to bomb The Satanic Verses off the shelves. With the superstores rolling out at full steam, the Web site changed the game entirely, yet again.

"It's just our bad luck that the one business that has come to be synonymous with the Web is a Net bookstore," says Hillel Stavis, who owns WordsWorth Books in Harvard Square. "But it's logical, in a way. The databases that you need to find books are consonant with the new technology." was the brainchild of Jeff Bezos, who left a venture-capital job in 1995 to pursue a visionary idea: he took the information that every bookstore has on its computer and gave the public access to it. Then he promised to ship any book in print to his customers within days.

It was radical, but it was also simple. In fact, it sounded too simple: early prospective investors were wary that in a business with such a low barrier to entry, Amazon would soon be squashed by a competitor. But Amazon's real genius was in what business analysts call "building its brand" -- in other words, creating a business people didn't just use, but felt warm and fuzzy about. Like the big chains, Amazon did this by taking a cue from the way independent bookstores operate. The site couldn't create the physical feel of a literary den, so it did it virtually: Amazon solicits scores of customer reviews, posts in-house reviews, and generates personalized reading recommendations for customers. will even send you an e-mail reminder when the latest Grisham novel hits its shelves, so to speak. With touches like that, Amazon built a virtual community of readers -- essentially, an online version of a friendly neighborhood bookstore. Says Stavis: "They pioneered automated intimacy."

From the beginning, the press fawned over Bezos, and he made the most of it, delivering books to his millionth customer by hand. The result is a company with $610 million in sales for 1998 and a remarkably loyal following. "Sixty-four percent of our business comes from repeat customers," says Amazon spokesperson Bill Curry, which -- in a rapidly growing business -- means that the vast majority of Amazon's customers come back. Because it spends so much on marketing and development, has yet to turn a profit, but its position as the strongest brand in Web commerce has pushed its market value to between $20 billion and $25 billion. (Barnes & Noble, by contrast, is valued at just over $3 billion; Borders, around $1 billion.)

Amazon's success caught an entire industry off guard -- not only the independents but also the national chains. Even the most cavernous superstore can't match the convenience of shopping from a list of all books in print from your desk at home. (This hasn't been lost on Barnes & Noble, which launched its own site in 1997. It then partnered with multinational media giant Bertelsmann AG in October 1998, with each company investing $100 million in the venture. Amazon and are even now locked in an advertising battle of my-warehouse-is-bigger-than-yours, but with the virtual nature of the debate, it's hard to tell who's winning.) It's not hard to imagine the effect of Amazon's seemingly bottomless marketing budget (according to Information Week, Amazon spent $37.5 million on marketing in the third quarter of 1998 alone) on the independents whose customer-service tactics Amazon is imitating.

Amazon itself downplays any connection between its rise and indies' decline. "In 1996, our best-selling book was a computer book," says Amazon spokesman Bill Curry. "But in 1997, it was [Jon] Krakauer's Into Thin Air. So at least into 1996 we were a niche computer bookseller. We have been really selling mainstream in a big way for 1997, 1998, and three months of 1999.

"The unfortunate demise of the indie bookstore," he says, "began long before that."

Curry may be right. "Independents had already become attenuated and marginalized," says Cody's Andy Ross. "Amazon is a little like the straw that's breaking the camel's back.

"The real problem with the Internet bookseller," he continues, "is they don't seem to have to make money to survive."

The truth is that no one knows exactly what effect will have on the industry. But as it barrels onward, the company is forging an entirely new model of bookselling, where stock on hand can seem like a matter of perception, and where nice surroundings are much less important than a customer's feeling about your business.

The evolving bookselling model includes some interesting new features, as well as some questionable old ones. The New York Times reported in February that Amazon was taking marketing money from publishers in exchange for promises to feature certain books on its front page under the heading "What We're Reading." Consumers were upset, and expressed their feelings of betrayal in angry e-mails to the company. Curry agrees that part of the reason for this reaction is that Amazon's customers saw the online bookseller in much the same way they see independent bookstores.

Feelings aside, Amazon is not a neighborhood bookstore. But it isn't exactly a chain, either. Given that its prime "real estate" -- the screen space that corresponds to a front-of-the-store display -- is small, Amazon can't push as many bestsellers as the chains. And there is some evidence that Amazon, unlike the chains, is having a positive influence on sales of midlist books. Overall, it's too early to tell what effect Amazon's personalized recommendation software, or keyword search function, will have on which books get sold. It's possible that for the world of ideas, the cumulative effect of online bookselling may not be that bad. For the corner bookseller, though, it's like having another 800-pound gorilla to contend with.

Faced with both the chains and Amazon, the independents are banding together for safety. The ABA's new "Book Sense" program -- which ABA director of communications Len Vlahos calls "a national branding identity campaign" -- is a move that Brookline Booksmith owner Dana Brigham says independent booksellers have been "clamoring for for years."

As a marketing proposal, Book Sense is an extension of a campaign already in place among booksellers on the West Coast. Last fall, the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association (NCIBA) spent $75,000 on putting print ads with the Book Sense logo and some text into local newspapers across California.

The ads read:

Imagine a place in your neighborhood, committed to books and the people who love them. A place where insights are shared with delight, and where you enjoy personal service, grounded in a passionate knowledge of books. We're independent bookstores with Book Sense, a new symbol of excellence in bookselling. And we invite you to shop where the Book Sense mark of distinction is proudly displayed.

Hut Landon, executive director of the NCIBA, coordinated and oversaw the Book Sense launch. "We wanted to have a 'Got Milk?' campaign for bookstores," he says.

In California, the ads generated more than 120 calls to the NCIBA's offices from curious consumers, and Landon says that stores reported a "fantastic" response.

"I can't say that their business has gone up 20 percent or anything, but virtually without exception, they say that this is a huge morale boost," he says. "That's not insignificant. We're finally doing something on a large scale."

As it turns out, the ABA has hired the very agency responsible for the "Got Milk?" campaign, Bozell Worldwide. And the Book Sense tag line, inherited from the California campaign, is catchy: "Independent stores for independent minds."

Landon points out that if the ABA can sign 1000 bookstores up for Book Sense, they'll collectively rival the chains, at least in terms of numbers of outlets. They're on the way: since the announcement of Book Sense as a national campaign a month ago, almost 700 stores have already signed up -- well over halfway toward the ABA's original 1000-store goal.

"We're not trying to put the big boys out of business," says Landon. "We're trying to retain our share of the market. We want to say, `We're here, too. I know you see ads for Barnes & Noble and Amazon everywhere, but we offer some things that they don't.' "

He compares the branding campaign to that of True Value hardware stores -- although those buy their merchandise collectively, which the independents will not do -- or to FTD florists. Both of those are national networks of independently owned businesses united under a collective brand. Book Sense stores will display the logo on their bags, in their stores, and on their Web sites. The campaign will focus heavily on print ads, but Vlahos says they're likely to do billboards and other media as well. And as with FTD, Book Sense will let customers buy gift certificates for any store with a Book Sense decal in its window.

The campaign is more than just a marketing plan, however. It's also a strategy for dealing with the Web. Across the board, bookstore owners and employees cite the Internet as their biggest current threat. They speak with furrowed brows about the numbers of customers who walk out of their stores saying, "That's okay, I'll just get it on Amazon."

The premise behind Amazon is an easy one to exploit: any store can access the database of books in print and order any book. Resources are needed only in order to attract the customers, make the site easy to navigate, and get lots of books quickly. In other words, as the business scales up, it gets expensive.

Some independent stores have already started to sell online, and most have Web sites. WordsWorth has an elegant and convenient site, as does Harvard Book Store. And the Boston Globe recently reported that local stores are already turning profits online, unlike Amazon. But most smaller stores, such as Brookline Booksmith, are still working out the online kinks.

For all its stores, will provide a common set of online tools. The ABA has signed a deal with a company called Muze to provide the database of book information, and with a Web developer called iXL to design and develop a central Book Sense site.

Starting in August, stores that don't already have Web sites will be able to drop information into ready-made Web templates provided by Stores with existing sites will be able to hook them up to a common "back end," giving customers access to a database and fulfillment resources that match Amazon's. Customers will be able to look up their nearest independent by zip code, and then order books directly from the nearest store; they'll also be able to determine which books are actually in the store, which will sometimes mean faster service than even Amazon's quickest delivery.

For all its possible convenience, the plan also carries certain risks. If bookstores aren't careful, shared content and templatized Web sites -- to say nothing of a national "branding" campaign -- could encourage the very homogeneity that the ABA is trying to fight.

"The challenge is to make this not feel like a franchise," says Landon. "It's a collection of stores." The ABA's Vlahos says that the Book Sense stores are "going to have to be good about populating their sites with local content, about changing the content, promoting local events."

But ultimately, Vlahos says, Book Sense will simply help independents cement what they've already got in each of their markets. "If you see a recommendation from Harvard Book Store," says Vlahos, "that recommendation is branded for you in a way that Amazon and Barnes & Noble can never brand it. Their recommendation doesn't carry the same kind of weight, and trust, that an independent-bookstore recommendation carries."

For Howorth, it's not just a matter of business. "Every one of us realizes what's at stake, for society, for a healthy reading society," he says. "If we don't fight together, then we're not going to have much of a chance."

For the stores, this is a way of reclaiming ground they've ceded to bigger players. In a retail world already dominated by two species of bookselling behemoth, the only competitive advantages left for the independents are trust, weight, human connection, and knowledgeable staff. In a world of 50,000-square-foot superstores and $50 million marketing budgets, these are subtleties -- but the independents are betting the farm on them. "They're subtleties," Vlahos says, "that can win out over time."

Michelle Chihara can be reached at mchihara[a]

| home page | what's new | search | about the phoenix | feedback |
Copyright © 1999 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.