There aren’t as many issues which lead to such contrasting reactions as the question of the influence of chain bookstores on the general condition of the bookmarket. While some praise their contribution in bringing a vast selection of books to places which were previously left blank on the imaginary bookstore map, others identify the chain bookstore with the undertaker of the independent booksellers and blame it practically for every single inconvenience the independents had to face in the past few decades.
Although Bookstore Guide is a blog aimed at supporting independent bookstores, this article is not meant as a crusade against chain bookstores, rather it’s an attempt to offer a balanced stance on this issue and to highlight the most interesting aspects of the chains’ effect on the indies. The topic we’re dealing with is complex and controversial, and we’re fully aware that we won’t be able to cover all its aspects within this article. On the other hand, this opens up the possibility to return to this topic and discuss more specific issues related to chain bookstores in one of the future articles of this series.
To begin with, it is important to clearly state that the local independent bookstore and the (inter)national chain simply cannot be compared in a fair way. Beside the fact that they both sell books, their position on the market is radically different. The independent bookstore prides itself in being a part of the local community and also of the local economy. The chains wish to play on a lot bigger playground and, it’s important to add, often by quite different rules. This ambition becomes evident through their attempts to dominate or at least to secure a strong presence in separate sectors of the bookselling industry. The consequences are obvious – if one actor within the system manages to gain control over several or all of its functions, the whole system will work in its favor. The series of merges, acquisitions and deals gave birth to a reshaped version of the book industry, which offers much better conditions to the powerful chains.
Independent bookstores often work as a sort of testing ground for the chains – if a certain title by a previously unknown author manages to slowly attract a considerable number of readers, only then can it aspire to get some attention from the chains which recognize and attempt to fully use its bestseller potential. To be fair, especially in recent years, many aspiring authors have reported a more open and supportive approach from the local branch of one of the huge chains than from the local independent bookstore. However, one must take into consideration that during the past two decades, indies were pushed into a position where they can’t afford to make any more mistakes, or in other words, to take any risks.
The question of taking risks or of having the luxury to make seemingly bold moves without any actual risk at all plays an important role in the whole debate and clearly shows how the chains enjoy privileges the indies can only dream of. An important factor that contributed to the unprecedented spread of the chains is the policy of returning unsold copies of stocked titles in exchange for credit for different tiles by the same publisher. This practice dates back to the years of the Great depression in the 1930s, when publisher Alfred Knopf invented it in order to encourage the weary booksellers. However, some 60 years later, it enabled to fill the vast spaces of the freshly-built chain bookstores with tons of books at practically no risk. Needless to say, the publishers didn’t protest. Until at some point, the balance has shifted, and suddenly more books were being returned as overstock and less and less new titles were being bought.
Barnes & Noble secured its position as a major player at the national level through a series of acquisitions during the 1970s and especially 1980s, coined by the purchase of B. Dalton Bookseller (the second biggest chain in the US at that time) and its 798 bookstores in 1986. Early 1990s marked the beginning of the era of the massive openings of the so-called „superstores“ all over the country. This period was characterized by an unprecedented steroidal growth of large bookstores all over the United States (in reaction to the activities of Barnes & Noble, other chains also decided to enlarge their existing stores and to open new ones). The question arose, how many more bookstores would the market be able to support. However, several other chains decided to ride the same wave and follow the example of Barnes & Noble. The recipe was simple enough – expand, expand and, you guessed it, expand.
Although the superstores proved to be very popular with the public early on, the initial costs were still a heavy burden (each and every one of them cost more than 1 million USD) and the debt of the company began to grow. The next decision of the CEO Leonard Riggio was to take the company public, which became a reality on the 28th of September 1993. This was the time when chains flooded the bookmarket and literally invaded every territory. This was also the time, when independents were forced to wage a war of David against Goliath. For the mainstream audience, the indies’ struggle has been brought to the silver screen in the 1998 romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail with Meg Ryan (as David of course...) and Tom Hanks. Meanwhile, the bookmarket was already undergoing much deeper changes, which were giving both the indies and the chains a hard time to cope with. The end of the 90s marked the beginning of a whole new era with the emergence of a new superforce, which reshaped the reality of bookselling once again – Amazon.com.
However, the future doesn’t seem so bright for the chains anymore as it is becoming quite obvious that these giants aren’t immune to the ongoing transformations of the book market. After a longer period of seemingly unstoppable strengthening of their position on the market, they are facing their own struggles which are calling for a new business strategy. Bestsellers can now be easily bought in supermarkets and usually at a lower price, when it comes to the rest of the stock, many people tend to prefer the vast choice available at online retailers, or the eclectic qualities of independent bookstores. One of the visible results is that chains are slowly changing their stock in an attempt to give more space to products or services, which can be sold at a higher margin. This explains the DVDs, CDs, magazines, all sorts of notebooks, pens, video games and toys, or the offer of drinks, coffee, cakes or other snacks.
It is not uninteresting to draw a parallel with the publishing industry at this point, which has been equally characterized by the merger trend in the same period and paradoxically, it has provoked a backlash in the form of the emancipation of authors. Many independent publishing houses were the victims of the various merging processes, but although the vast majority of mainstream titles is published by a small number of huge publishing conglomerates, independent publishing as such is on a rise. Grass roots publishing initiatives are spreading especially in the United States and self-published authors are becoming more and more common. We would like to return to this topic in one of our future articles. Perhaps radical changes in the structure of the bookselling business will have similar positive effects on independent bookselling, although putting your hopes into this sort of shock therapy is more than questionable.
So is there any single objective way to interpret the impact of chains bookstores on the book industry and book culture in general? We would say that this task is quite difficult and it depends on your unique personal experience. From the point of view of someone who has lived in a city lacking a decent bookstore, the arrival of a huge chain store is definitely an event worth celebrating. Making books available to a wider audience, that’s the main argument the advocates of chain bookstores bring to the discussion. On the other hand, if you were used to having the opportunity to browse several independent bookstores in your neighborhood, while now you’re left with staring at the window display of the only bookstore left – and its irresistible 3for2 offers and the complete Chicken Soup for the Soul series.
To make the matters a bit more practical, lets imagine the dilemma that those readers who are more aware of the whole problem have to face before entering a bookstore. Does buying a book at a chain bookstore make you a traitor of the whole independent bookselling scene? Does this mean that you should be really careful not to be spotted sneaking out of one of the enemy’s air-conditioned lairs with a plastic bag with a B&N logo tucked under your shoulder in order not to end up condemned and despised by your friends? Our answer is negative as we think that choosing a bookstore, just like choosing a book, is a matter of personal preference and values. It’s perfectly ok for someone who enjoys the atmosphere or the offer of chain bookstores to buy his or her books in the chain of his choice. As long as the act of choosing is involved.
In our opinion, every avid reader thrives in an environment where several bookstores compete for his or her attention with a different selection of titles on their stock. If the chain bookstore would be able to accept this position and function in an environment like this, it would be just one of the legitimate options for the reader/customer and no one would complain. The problem is that more often than not, this is not the case. In the end, the main point of the whole discussion boils down to this, and the arguments like who has a more knowledgeable staff or who has a better selection of contemporary fiction become irrelevant.
Judging the issue from this perspective, it is an undisputable fact that the spread of chain bookstores lead to a narrowing of the reader’s choices and it has left the book market damaged and impoverished. Although the overall number of bookstores has grown, their variety has been significantly reduced. The chains have attempted to realize a rather dull version of the bookmarket, with huge bookstores resembling one another like clones, claiming to be able to satisfy the wish of every single reader with their complete offer. Today, it is already clear that they haven’t succeeded.
The often-quoted statistic proving the ongoing eradication of indies is the dramatically falling membership of the American Booksellers Association which went down from around 5 200 bookstores in 1991 to some 1 700 in 2005. (Collins 2006) But it’s precisely those independents which survived and are still in business which matter the most and make the crucial difference. And more than anything else they prove their ability to survive and even thrive during the difficult times. Although we have focused primarily on the latest chapter of the struggle of independent bookselling, the fact that indies have to fight hard for their bare survival is nothing new and it has been so during the better part of the 20th century.
This also leads us to the perhaps surprisingly optimistic conclusion of this article – there have always been individuals who supported the indies and secured their survival, though the odds were often stacked against them. But these people are devoted to their mission and feel comfortable that they can make a change, instead of giving in to frustration and lethargy. This feeling is strengthened with each happy and content customer leaving their shops. And as long as these people are able to find some sense in what they’re doing and keep their passion alive, independent bookstores will very likely continue to lighten up the bookselling business for some time to come.
Allen, B. (2001): Two—Make That Three—Cheers for the Chain Bookstores, The Atlantic, July/August 2001.
Collins, P. (2006): Chain Reaction - Do bookstores have a future?, Village Voice, May 16th 2006.
Hamilton, A. (2008): Big Chain Bookstore Death Watch
Holt, P. (2008): Holt Uncensored: The Beginning
Independent Bookstores Face Chain-Store Threat, San Francisco Chronicle, 11/29/98.
Company histories: Barnes & Noble
1 & 2: collage made by Bookstore Guide team
More articles from this series:
An Insight into the Current State of Independent Bookselling – An Introduction
Independent Bookstores in Danger of Extinction - Who is to Blame?
Independent Booksellers and the Fixed Book Price: a Horror Story?
Independent Booksellers: What Can Be Done To Help?
An Interview with an Antiquarian Bookseller: The Caretaker
Literaturhaus: Books, Words and Much Much More
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