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.

I decided to conduct a comparison in my neighborhood, which has both a Barnes & Noble and an excellent, medium-sized independent. I picked five titles that I happened to be looking for at the time and that were tried-and-true standards in their fields but not best sellers: The Sicilian Vespers, by Steven Runciman; The Sixth Extinction, by Richard Leakey; The Music at Long Verney, a recently and posthumously published book of short stories by the British writer Sylvia Townsend Warner; An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America, by Gary Cross; and Jay Maisel's New York, a photography book.

The independent had The Music at Long Verney and The Sixth Extinction but not the other three. Barnes & Noble had everything except The Music at Long Verney: according to the computer, it was in stock, but I couldn't find a copy on the shelf. The salespeople in both stores were pleasant and helpful but not particularly knowledgeable.

An oft repeated battle cry of the anti-chain lobby—that the independents stock books the chains don't carry—is untrue. The chains also have a vastly wider choice of books; the titles may not be lovingly handpicked or personally sold, but they're there. And in any case, there is a downside to hand-picking and personal sales: one may be subject to the whims, biases, and pretensions of an opinionated owner—or, for that matter, to the ministrations of supercilious sales clerks who, no matter how little they know about whatever author or subject you are searching for, still manage to act patronizing. For serious readers—those who want a store that carries not only John Updike's latest novel but all his in-print novels—the superstores offer infinitely more.

Many book-business insiders are justifiably worried about the concentration of power represented by the chains' centralized buying staff. Where 500 independent bookstores means 500 buyers, for example, 500 Borders stores use only a small staff to stock each and every store. The worst fears, however, have not been realized, although the malaise within the publishing industry continues. The comments of one senior editor at a first-rate literary press, who prefers to remain anonymous because of the delicacy of his relationship with the chains, are typical. "As a consumer living in the suburbs," he says, "I'm grateful for the chains and grateful for their presence in places where there often are no other stores; as a publisher, I'm grateful for the distribution but sorry for the concentration of power. These people are very powerful in their selection—a new novel has to be pitched to and convince a handful of buyers that distribute it nationally." He believes, however, that at least so far the chains have done well by literary fiction, and he is both gratified and slightly surprised to see his own rather recondite titles in big suburban mall stores. "The number of places where good books can be found has increased dramatically over the past twenty years," he says. "It's easier for people to find out about books and get hold of them."

"Just what is so wrong with the chains?" demands Edmund Leites, a philosophy professor at Queens College. "Barnes & Noble carries an immense number of small-press books, and what they don't have they can get. I recently went there and ordered a very obscure book put out by a small press in Massachusetts and got it in just three days. What exactly is so bad? Tell me, why should we care about the collapse of snotty, understocked bookstores where they complain if you want to return a book?"

Another accusation leveled against the chains is that they promote best sellers at the expense of "midlist" titles—the book-business term for literary fiction and serious nonfiction. Within the industry there has for some time been a perceived crisis in midlist publishing, and in 1998 the Authors Guild, the Authors Guild Foundation, and the Open Society Institute commissioned a report on midlist publishing and marketing, which was carried out by the reporter David D. Kirkpatrick and written up in 2000. Kirkpatrick found that things were hardly going as badly for mid-list books as everyone had expected; in fact, on reading his report, one doubts whether there is any crisis at all. Although the report complains that midlist titles are losing overall sales and market share vis-à-vis best sellers, it clearly demonstrates that the chains, with their tremendous capacity, have given not a blow but a boost to midlist titles: midlist sales have continued to grow, although not quite as fast as best-seller sales. "More midlist titles than ever before are available," the report says, "from both large commercial publishers and small presses. More and more shelf space is devoted to selling them."

In part because of all the newly available shelf space, books from small presses are now actually experiencing what the study refers to as "a genuine boom"—the percentage of books from small presses bought by Barnes & Noble doubled from 1997 to 2000. Small presses, according to a study conducted by the Book Industry Study Group and the Publishers Marketing Association, constitute a rapidly growing segment of the publishing industry; in 1997 they accounted for 77 percent of the titles listed in Books in Print. The Kirkpatrick study asserts, without any substantiation, that the superstores stock these noncommercial titles only to fill shelf space and to attract, to put it bluntly, a higher class of reader. In fact, though, the chains devote not only more shelf space but also considerably more display space to midlist titles than to lowbrow best sellers; and as for really noncommercial books, the chains make them readily available to anyone who cares to browse.

"The main challenge facing midlist books is less in getting published," the Kirkpatrick study contends, "than in getting noticed and sold ... Chain-store merchandising policies help turn consumers' attention away from midlist titles and toward an elite of books that are backed by heavy marketing budgets." True, perhaps, but misleading, because a large proportion of today's blockbuster best sellers, promoted by the chains, in fact started out as midlist titles. Think of Angela's Ashes, Cold Mountain, Corelli's Mandolin, Longitude,The Perfect Storm, Into the Wild. Many of these books got their initial boost, it goes without saying, from enthusiastic independent stores that recommended them to customers. Once the word was out, though, it was the promotional and marketing clout of the chains that brought these relatively high-quality works to a mass-market readership.

Still, the anti-corporate rhetoric is compelling, so in February I decided to take a good look at what was being pushed at my local Barnes & Noble and Borders. In the Barnes & Noble at Sixth Avenue and Twenty-first Street, in Manhattan, I found that the mass-market paperbacks—Danielle Steele, Mary Higgins Clark, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, Stephen King, all the brand-name stuff that pops to mind when we hear the words "best seller"—were clustered in choice positions around the cash registers, segregated from the main body of the store. On the ground floor the bookshelves were divided into two sections by a central aisle in which ten tables, each devoted to a particular subject, prominently displayed the books that the store, for whatever reason, happened to be pushing.

Many of these prime display sites featured midlist titles. On the new-nonfiction table they tended to be either by unimpeachably highbrow authors such as Edward Said and Christopher Hitchens or by respectable middlebrow ones such as Amanda Foreman and Jamaica Kincaid. On the new-fiction and "paperback favorites" tables Muriel Spark, Amitav Ghosh, Jean Echenoz (winner of the Prix Goncourt), Allegra Goodman, Ahdaf Soueif, Dorothy Allison, and Ha Jin were given pride of place. The store's window display was 90 percent midlist.

What, then, is the so-called crisis really about? Is there any fairness in the Kirkpatrick study's conclusion that the recent power shift from publishing to retail has meant that "midlist books wind up being printed but not really published"? Monstrous superstores are packed wall-to-wall with attractive midlist titles. Just how many more can be absorbed into the system? Steve Wasserman, the literary editor of the Los Angeles Times, states his belief that "we live in an age where no book, however mediocre, goes unpublished." Even Jason Epstein, the longtime Random House editorial director whose recent Book Business hardly heaped praise on superstore marketing practices, remarks in its pages, "It is my impression that more such books [that is, "unconventional titles of permanent or even passing value"] are being published than ever before and more people are reading them, thanks in part to the chains and the online booksellers who have helped make book buying a stimulating part of everyday life."

The marketing strategies of the chains, though carried out on a huge scale, are hardly new or revolutionary. Tom and Louis Borders simply took the winning formula they had perfected in their famous independent Ann Arbor, Michigan, store and multiplied it; and Len Riggio appears to have copied the best features of the great independents, places like the Tattered Cover, in Denver, and Hungry Mind (now Ruminator), in St. Paul. In many cases the chains targeted neighborhoods that already had good independents, and many of these fell by the wayside during the first years of the superstore invasion; membership in the American Booksellers Association dropped from a high of about 5,000 in the mid-1990s to a low of about 3,000 in the middle of last year.

By and large, however, the best independents have held their own, thanks to some energetic rearguard actions and to the realization by the independents that if they are going to keep competing, they have to provide some of the more successful features of the chains, such as discounts, extended hours, comfort, and parking. Competition from the chains, in other words, has improved the services in the independents that have survived. Since last year the number of independents has continued to hold steady. According to Scott McKinstry, of the ABA, "We went through some frightening years in the 1990s, but the closings of independents have absolutely leveled off now."

Wonderful though many of the independents were (and are), however, the fact is that most of the good ones were clustered in the big cities, leaving a sad gap in America's smaller cities and suburbs—the places, in fact, where most of the American population actually lives. Books-A-Million's 202 stores, for instance, are almost all located in the Southeast. Borders has from the beginning targeted another underserved market, the suburbs, and as a result the quality of life in American suburbia has radically changed over the past decade. This is a point that the urban intelligentsia, which loves to characterize the suburbs as a cultural wasteland, seems to have missed, or at least to have taken no interest in. It's the same sort of contempt that causes highbrow folks to sneer at Oprah Winfrey and her book club—though Oprah ought to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for helping to keep literature a vital part of a popular culture increasingly dominated by the electronic media. Who but she could have put Toni Morrison—whose Song of Solomon and Paradise are not anyone's idea of lightweight reads—on the national best-seller list three times? "The Oprah craze has opened up a whole new world of readers," says Irena Vukov-Kendes, the director of advertising and promotion for the major Random House imprints, Vintage and Anchor Books. "People who are not used to reading for pleasure are now reading a lot of quite challenging books." The chains have had a similar impact on the nation's cultural life.

Smaller cities have also benefited: Borders now has superstores in places like Murray, Utah; Tacoma, Washington; Hagerstown, Maryland; and Henderson, Nevada. Edward Harte, a newspaper editor and publisher in the mid-sized city of Corpus Christi, Texas, remarks that before the advent of Barnes & Noble his town had no passably good bookstore at all. "Those of us who really wanted a bookstore had to drive to San Antonio," he says. Although Harte has reservations about the impersonality of the chains, he is grateful for his local Barnes & Noble. "It isn't a cuddly, cozy place, but they're courteous and they have computers that can answer your questions. They even accept personal checks."

The chains, in short, have met a need, especially for those living outside the great urban centers, and they have done this—not coincidentally, perhaps—at a time when public libraries have ceased to meet that need. In the past decade or so libraries have had to invest a large portion of their never-very-lavish budgets on computers, Internet connections, and software. As a result many libraries' book budgets and general services have been curtailed. Too often public libraries lack an adequate supply of books; too often the comfortable spaces that used to be available for relaxed reading and browsing have been swallowed up by computer terminals and video collections; too often staffs consist of untrained volunteers; too often the facilities are closed in the evening and on weekends, while the chain stores, which function as perfectly sufficient reference facilities as well as reading rooms, remain tantalizingly open.

Even in bookstore-rich England many people have applauded the rise of their version of Len Riggio—Tim Waterstone. A 1999 article in the traditionally left-wing New Statesman went so far as to claim,

If any one person deserves credit for cheering up city centres it is Tim Waterstone ... The Waterstonisation of Britain has been one of the most civilising influences of the last years of the 20th century. Cities that lacked any decent bookshop suddenly got one; sometimes, with the competition, even two or three. Culturally it matches Allen Lane's invention of the cheap, good paperback when he launched Penguin Books in 1935.

"The book business was an elitist, standoffish institution," Len Riggio told BusinessWeek in 1998. "I liberated it from that." Riggio's critics have mocked his populist pose, but it should be taken seriously. Before the appearance of the chains, a relatively highbrow, urban clientele shopped at the independents, and a relatively lowbrow, largely regional one bought mass-market titles at supermarkets, price clubs, and drugstores. Now, thanks to the chains and to Internet sales, the vast territory between the two extremes has been bridged. Elitists may carp, but the truth is that they are no longer quite so elite. These days shoppers in Buford, Georgia, and Rapid City, South Dakota, can pick up important titles such as Norman Cantor's Inventing the Middle Ages, Eugene Genovese's Roll, Jordan, Roll, and Andrew Motion's biography of John Keats—titles that are neither "popular" nor newly published—at their local Borders. (None of these books were available at the venerated independent Manhattan bookstores St. Marks Bookshop and Three Lives, or at Los Angeles's hip and highbrow Book Soup, when I called.)

"I admire what Riggio's done," Steve Wasserman says. "In a country increasingly knit together, worldly, and wired, it seems that people everywhere are interested in everything. The regional expansion of the chains is all to the good. There's a very big market outside the major cities. People are not the rubes that some people think they are."

It is quite possible that five or ten years from now the chains themselves will be as seriously endangered as the independents looked a while ago. The future of bookselling is up for grabs. The chains have for years laid out grandiose and unsustainable expenditures—physical expansion, deep discounts, and investment in technology—in order to compete with each other and to dominate regional markets; now the inevitable belt tightening has begun. Last year Barnes & Noble quietly ended many discounts, including its 10 percent across-the-board hardback discount, and substituted its own best-seller list (discounted) for that of The New York Times. Last October, David Kirkpatrick reported in the Times, "This year, the discount era in the bookstore business has virtually come to an end," citing rising rents, the tight labor market, and increased investment in computer systems.

It is anyone's guess whether the chains will survive in the long run, especially in view of the changes that Internet technology is imposing on the retail book business.

"For the first time in my lifetime," Riggio told The New York Times in 1999, "I can't see five years ahead the way I used to." But in the meantime, readers are faced with an embarrassment of riches, writers with an unprecedented array of outlets. The good independents are managing to hang on to their customers and even to attract new ones; small presses are thriving; the chains and the Internet between them have made a wide variety of books more easily available, in more places and to more people, than ever before. Phyllis Odessey, the creative director of the Book-of-the-Month Club (an enterprise that has stayed solvent, by the way, despite both chains and the Internet), believes that we are living in "a golden age" for book consumers. "Each business helps the others out," she says. "The more people are exposed to books, the more they want to read and the more books they buy, from any source."