Booksellers: A Great Generation

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There was big news in the world of bookselling this month. Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade, owners of Politics and Prose, a superb emporium in northwest Washington, D.C, have decided it is time to sell. This is not, we have been assured, a sign of retail distress. It is merely recognition that, with the owners in their 70s, succession of some kind is necessary. I am confident in speaking for Politics and Prose customers, and the publishers and authors who have engaged with the store in its illustrious 26-year history, when I say that finding the right new proprietors is very much to be wished. Politics and Prose is what a great bookstore should be: a community anchor with reading groups, almost nightly author events, a helpful and knowledgeable staff, and a downstairs coffee shop. If a single buyer doesn't emerge, perhaps someone can organize a cooperative in which shares are sold to an array of investors who will then hire a first-rate manager from among the store's existing senior staff.

In any case, if there were a hall of fame for contemporary book luminaries, Carla and Barbara would be among the first honorees.

The coming transition at Politics and Prose underscores the role of their generation of master booksellers, leaders in the field of independent bookselling from as far back as the 1970s. What characterizes these stalwarts is their commitment to the art of hand-selling good books and the evolving science of marketing in which, it seems, a new challenge emerges every few years since the mid-1980s. First there were the early discount and mall stores in the thousands (now disappearing as their chain owners close them down); then rise of corporate superstores with vast inventories; the "Big Box" stores like Sam's Club and Wal-Mart, where a small selection of books are stacked on pallets and, increasingly in the past decade, online sales with lower prices and extraordinary focus on delivery—two features the independents find it hard to match. Here is a list of some of my favorites—all of them, as it happens, women who have set standards of success and stature among their peers. Readers could doubtless add other stellar names.

Joyce Meskis, owner of Tattered Cover in Denver, Colorado, founded in 1971 and considered the model for large superstores. Until her retirement a few years ago, Margaret Maupin was the lead buyer.

Elaine Petrocelli founded Book Passage in Marin County, California, in 1976 (with her husband, Bill) and has developed an extensive program of in-store classes as well as supporting the community in many other ways.

Barbara Morrow, owner since 1976 with her husband Ed, of Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vermont, an especially good-looking establishment that somehow feels cozy in ski season and airy in summer.

Roberta Rubin, owner of Bookstall in Winnetka, Illinois, since 1982, a quintessential carriage trade store that serves its up-market clientele with the right touch.

Roxanne Coady, owner of RJ Julia in Madison, Connecticut, which has marked its 20th anniversary. Roxanne, a former Wall Streeter, is a dynamo who has imagination to spare and the determination to see many of these ideas through.

Diane Garrett, who owns Diane's Books in downtown Greenwich, Connecticut, where I live. Next fall she'll mark a 20-year anniversary. She has outlasted every other bookstore in central Greenwich, as well as record stores that once flourished also. Knowing the local market as I do, this cannot have been easy.

In the best of times, bookselling in the "indie" tradition is a business that requires an especially resilient spirit, given how complex it is to remain viable in an economy dominated by national chains, consolidation, and technology behemoths. These booksellers all have excelled in the relationship aspects of what they do, shaping a loyal customer base by making their stores essential in the way people feel about their communities. Independent booksellers will have to overcome the convenience and advantages of online and on-demand bookselling by continuing to give premium service and supporting cultural activities around books.

The biggest challenge now for booksellers is how to adapt to the digital transformation under way in how books are presented and sold. It may well be that the brilliant cohort that Barbara, Carla, and the others represent will leave it to their heirs and successors to tackle these issues, and they will have to do so soon. The brick and mortar store is still the overwhelming destination for book buying. But like movie theaters, they increasingly have to compete with what consumers can get at home. What is ahead should not in any way detract from the past. Every trade and profession has its stars and this great generation of independent booksellers has earned a lasting place in publishing lore and the respect and gratitude of all who have benefited from them.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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