Retail Book Bind
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DAN ODEGARD, Former Bookstore Owner: This was the store in Edina.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: At one time Dan Odegard was known as one of the premier booksellers in the country. He fondly remembers the days when authors would stop by his three Minneapolis area stores for an autograph signing.
DAN ODEGARD: Alex Haley. Erica Jong. Robert MacNeil, who you may be familiar with.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But in 1989, a New York-based bookstore company called Barnes and Noble, decided to expand its operations nationwide. It started in the Minneapolis area with a store like this one, which covered thousands of square feet and stocked nearly 200,000 titles. It had a coffee bar that sold food and latte– and it discounted prices. Within three years, Odegard was out of business.
DAN ODEGARD: Increasingly, we didn’t have enough margin. We were having difficulty just staying alive. The perception certainly was, and the reality was too, that you could get books more inexpensively there.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But it wasn’t just discount pricing that drove Odegard out of business. The big bookstore chains are able to guarantee long-term leases with national commercial companies for real estate space. They can also spend millions of dollars on marketing and advertising. Odegard could do neither.
DAN ODEGARD: Barnes and Noble opened within a couple blocks of us; they put billboards all around where we were located. We couldn’t begin to afford that kind of advertising.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Nationwide, the four major bookstore chains–Barnes and Noble, Borders Group, Crown Books and Books-A-Million–increased their sales 180 percent in the ten-year period from 1986 to 1996 to $5 billion. Meanwhile, grocery stores, discount stores, and warehouse clubs increased their overall book sales. The competition has driven independent stores under. In the past two years 200 have closed around the country, so that today only 18 percent of all books sales to adults are made in independent stores. The Tattered Cover in Denver is one of the independent books stores that so far has survived. Ironically, the Tattered Cover and a few other large independents around the country were actually the model for the new superstores.
SPOKESPERSON: Would you please Welcome Miller Williams. (applause)
BETTY ANN BOWSER: By hosting poetry readings and providing comfortable chairs in a “living room” setting these stores became a place to gather and socialize. Joyce Meskis, the owner of the Tattered Cover, says in spite of her success, her profit margin is less than one percent, and she’s worried she may be the next forced into bankruptcy.
JOYCE MESKIS; I think that we have been targeted. There are certainly a large number of Barnes and Noble stores that have come into our community. First wave positioned four stores at each corner of the city. Then one came closer to us. I would say there’s quite an influx of stores coming into our area.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Steven Riggio is Chief Operating Officer of Barnes and Noble.
STEVEN RIGGIO, BARNES & NOBLE: I think one has to realize that the book selling business is a retailing business and retailing is competitive, and, you know, whether it be books or toys or, you know, office supplies or the like, it is competition, and I think that we have achieved success because of our innovative ideas or revolutionary ideas.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Riggio says recent sales in Barnes and Noble stores are up 24 percent, even though industry wide book sales are flat. And he says that’s because of people like these we talked to in one of the Minneapolis super stores.
JACK KRUGER: Just about anything that you might want to find or look up, you can find here. You know the smaller stores are kind of limited. And so we come here because of all the books they have.
SHELLEY NELSON: I like the tendency for the superstores to give a comfortable setting in which to spend some time with books, as opposed to picking something off the shelf, buying it, and leaving.
VINCENT SENIOR: The coffee bar. And a place to sit, and they have nice, comfortable chairs.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: I see you like baseball.
VINCENT JUNIOR: It’s my favorite sport
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And do they have a real good selection of baseball books here?
VINCENT JUNIOR: Yes. This whole front shelf right here.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But critics of the super stores say the chains are more interested in money than books. Emilie Buchwald heads Milkweed Editions–a small not-for-profit publishing house in Minneapolis.
EMILIE BUCHWALD: The chains look at their computers and say this book isn’t selling a month or two after it’s been delivered from the printer, send it back. And that book never has a chance to have a shelf life. That book never has a chance to have its reviews catch up with it so that people even know that it’s there.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Steve Daubenspeck, who manages one of the Barnes and Noble superstores in St. Paul, says he gives books a chance. He says occasionally a book like Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt breaks through because people like him recommend it.
STEVE DAUBENSPECK: We look at the book, and we make decisions on the book itself, which is important.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: So there are some books that get a stay of execution?
STEVE DAUBENSPECK: Yes, yes. There are books that get stays of execution. So, it’s not all done by five people in New York.There’s a lot of people involved in this. I would be scared if that was the only way books were bought in America.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Critics also complain the “superstore phenomenon” has changed the way publishers do business and led almost to an economic form of censorship.
SANDRA DIJKSTRA: Chains will only order books that are published at a certain number. The big book publishers are only going to be wanting to buy books that they can be publish in a certain number. So we’re reaching a point, a kind of a cannibalistic cycle, which is rather frightening.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Sandra Dijkstra is a book agent who represents more than 150 writers, including Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club. At a recent appearance at the Tattered Cover, she talked about the influence the chain stores have had on what books get published.
SANDRA DIJKSTRA: I think it is having a kind of trickle-down effect on the whole industry because it means that publishers again want to publish what is obvious, what will be a best seller from the instant they publish it. They want a recognizable image, a recognizable title, or recognizable name. And so I think it means that, you know, there will be a question of whether an Amy Tan could have happened in this environment.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Riggio maintains his business is having quite the opposite effect.
STEVEN RIGGIO: Totally preposterous. Our buying staff is some of the most experienced book people in America. We’ re giving greater exposure, greater distribution, and greater display to books from small presses and mid size publishers and university presses, and we’re seeing tremendous growth there.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Publishers complain that the chain stores deliberately order large quantity of books knowing they can return them–leaving the publishers to absorb the losses. It’s a practice, they say, that’s forcing them to re-think which books they publish. At least one major publishing house–Harper Collins–recently stunned the publishing world when it announced it would not print 100 books that had previously been scheduled. And Milkweed publisher Buchwald is also making changes.
EMILIE BUCHWALD: One of the things we’ve had to do is to cut back our publishing program somewhat and be very, very careful about how we allow out books to be ordered in the future– to make sure that at least on our part–the books are not going to go out and then come back.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Those independent bookstores that hope to survive are also making changes. The Tattered Cover has extended its hours, added an espresso bar and restaurant, and gone beyond poetry readings to wine tastings.
COLLETTE MORGAN: You can put him down on the floor if you’d like and he’ll uncurl and walk around a little bit.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: For other independents, survival has come from finding a niche. Collette Morgan, who used to work at Odegard’s, and Tom Braun found theirs in a children’s bookstore.
PERSON: Tiffany, look out.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Not only is the Wild Rumpus bookstore home to more than 33,000 books–a hedgehog, three chickens, two cats, and some twenty birds also live here. For the past four years Morgan and Braun have turned a profit, in spite of what has happened to the other independent books stores in Minneapolis.
COLLETTE MORGAN: You have to have something that will set you apart from the other booksellers. So if you have–if you can specialize in a certain area and have a great expertise in that area, then you’re many jumps ahead of the competition.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Still, Braun and Morgan, like other independent bookstore owners, think even fewer children’s books are being published because of the influence of the superstores.
TOM BRAUN: Fewer and fewer people are making the decisions to buy from a smaller, a shrinking assortment of books. I mean, we’re talking about books here. We’re not talking about running shoes. So we want variety. We want as many different kinds of books as possible, and I think the impact is that we’re losing that variety gradually.
STEVEN RIGGIO: I think on the contrary. I mean, we consider our bookstores neighborhood bookstores and they’re not homogeneous; they’re each individually distinct. We are big believers in rooting our stores in the communities they serve and consider our neighborhood bookstores. You know, every one of our stores is different.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Riggio said Barnes and Noble hopes to open three to four hundred new superstores in the next five years. And the company is selling books on the country’s largest Internet provider, American Online. This service will compete with Amazon.com, another Web site that offers 2 ½ million titles. And not to be outdone, independents like the Tattered Cover are trying to compete with their own Web sites. It may be a new chapter in books wars waged in cyberspace.