Books July 2001

Two—Make That Three—Cheers for the Chain Bookstores

Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Books-A-Million have enormously enriched the nation's cultural life

What if fifteen years ago someone had suggested a nationwide network of gigantic bookshops, carrying about 150,000 titles each, staying open until 11:00 P.M. or midnight, and offering cafés, comfortable chairs, and public restrooms? And what if these sumptuous emporia were to be found not only in the great urban centers but also in small cities and suburbs all across the country—places like Plano, Texas; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Mesa, Arizona? Wouldn't we have thought that sounded like pure, if unattainable, heaven? Well, that is what the superstore chains—Barnes & Noble; Borders; and Books-A-Million, based in Birmingham, Alabama—have brought us. Why, then, the chorus of disapproval from the cultural elite? Why the characterization, spread by a vocal group of critics, of the chain bookstores as a sort of intellectual McDonald's, a symbol of the dumbing-down and standardization of American life?

The image of the big bad chains gobbling up brave little independents was crystallized in the 1998 Nora Ephron film You've Got Mail, in which the cute encounter involves typically, and preposterously, antithetical types. The heroine, played by Meg Ryan, runs a venerable children's bookshop in Manhattan, a nurturing, warm-and-fuzzy, personal-services kind of place. The decidedly tainted hero, played by Tom Hanks, is the lowbrow owner of a chain of superstores intent on putting her out of business. (He bears a certain resemblance to Len Riggio, the brash CEO of Barnes & Noble.) At one point in the movie Ryan attacks Hanks's stores, saying they are "big, impersonal, overstocked, and full of ignorant salespeople." It's a clear cue for the audience to stand up and cheer.

The self-appointed guardians of educated America have tended to weigh in on Ephron's side. In 1986, with chain stores like B. Dalton and Waldenbooks dotted throughout America's malls and independent stores beginning to close down, the chains were perceived, with some justice, as soulless and inadequate, and the prospect of an ever larger portion of the retail book market being turned over to ever larger chain stores was alarming. The Washington Post expressed dismay: "Chain bookselling means that best-selling books will be available everywhere, usually at discounted prices, but it also means that they—and the tapes and the calendars—leave no room for the small-press edition of a minor novel, or a university press edition of an important scholarly work." The cultural elite continues to perceive the chains as purveyors of junk, and to emanate a rather surprising (if characteristic) aura of doom and gloom. Patricia Holt, a former book editor and reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle, has been an especially angry critic; she writes a free twice-weekly e-mail column on the publishing industry, called "Holt Uncensored" (launched by the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association), one of whose purposes is to attack what she only half jokingly calls the "lying thieving" chains. André Schiffrin, the director of The New Press and formerly the managing director of Pantheon Books, recently based an entire book (The Business of Books) on his contention that the takeover of publishing and retail by big corporations and conglomerates, including the book superstores, has impoverished the culture, leaving "little room for books with new, controversial ideas or challenging literary voices."

One has to wonder just what planet he is on. A look around any of the superstores will show that more risky and experimental fiction, more first novels, and more serious nonfiction are available to general readers all over the country than ever before. During the 1990s, with insiders fearing that mainstream publishing houses would publish fewer "serious" books, it was thought that university presses would take up the slack, possibly at the expense of their more scholarly material. But that's not exactly what has happened. The university presses are indeed publishing dramatically more titles that appeal to general readers—but a number of new houses, such as PublicAffairs, Encounter Books, and Schiffrin's own New Press, and fledgling imprints like Theia (Hyperion) and BlueHen (Penguin Putnam) publish exclusively serious, noncommercial books, both nonfiction and fiction. Others, such as New York Review Books and A Common Reader, have made wonderful but out-of-print and often forgotten titles available again. Barnes & Noble sponsors a program called Discover, which promotes enough sensitive, gemlike first novels to choke a horse; Borders's Original Voices program performs a similar service.

Although there is some reality in the image of the chains as predators (ours is a capitalist economy, after all), it is not the whole truth or even, perhaps, the most important part. The emotional drive behind the anti-chain crusade is an understandable mistrust of big corporations allied with the knee-jerk snobbery that is never far from the surface in American cultural life. "I am a reader," the interior litany goes, "therefore I belong to a privileged minority; I patronize exclusive bookstores known only to me and my intellectual peers." With the chains, which target a wider public and make the process of book buying unthreatening to the relatively less educated, the exclusivity factor disappears.

How do the chains hold up against the charges of the culture snobs? Let's take Nora Ephron's salvo first. Big and overstocked? To a real reader, the charge is absurd: there is no such thing as overstocked, and more is, quite simply, better. The superstores have given readers, writers, and publishers an invaluable gift: shelf room. The typical superstore carries about 150,000 titles in about 20,000 square feet of space, whereas the typical independent has room for fewer than 20,000 titles. The Washington Post's fear that calendars and other impulse items would crowd out books has proved utterly groundless: Barnes & Noble, for example, orders about 85 percent of the more than 50,000 new adult trade titles published every year.

On a recent trip to the Barnes & Noble branch at Astor Place, in New York City, I did some mental measuring of the shelving and what it contained. There were, for example, approximately 189 feet of biography, 196 feet of philosophy, 92 feet of military history, 168 feet of poetry, and 165 feet of books and materials on foreign-language instruction, in Albanian, Amharic, Bengali, Urdu, Welsh, and Yoruba, among others. And what the chains don't have, they will order. "It's the most democratic forum, the most democratic marketplace of ideas imaginable," the historian David McCullough has said. "No civilization has had anything like what we have now."

What about the other charges—that the superstores are impersonal and full of ignorant salespeople? After several months of sampling both chains and independents, I have come to the conclusion that the average chain salesperson is neither more nor less ignorant than his or her counterpart in the independents. One edge the independents do have is that if a salesperson is unhelpful or clueless, the more knowledgeable proprietor is often close at hand. But I have found that chain-store clerks are, on the whole, well-spoken and helpful, and sometimes know a lot more than one might expect.

In a syrupy scene in You've Got Mail, Meg Ryan lovingly introduces one of her child customers to Maud Hart Lovelace's classic Betsy-Tacy series. Now, I am a Betsy-Tacy fan myself, as are my children, and only a few weeks before seeing the movie I had gone searching for some of the later books in the series. My first stop was Books of Wonder, the famous Manhattan children's bookshop on which You've Got Mail's independent appears to have been based. The clerk there had never heard of the series, and when she looked it up in Books in Print, she proceeded to confuse it with another venerable series, Carolyn Haywood's Betsy books. The store, in any case, didn't carry them. At Barnes & Noble, on the other hand, I hit pay dirt on the first try: after only a moment's thought, the young clerk led me right to the shelf where almost every volume in the series was stocked. Borders, too, I soon ascertained, carried the Betsy-Tacy books.

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