I once visited a rare bookstore in which I couldn’t buy a book. Not for a lack of trying: I brought nearly a dozen books to the counter, where the owner momentarily glanced at each volume and said, “That’s not for sale.” Selling books is like no other retail business. Even after hundreds of years, there is still a debate: Is a book another saleable commodity, or is it something more?
That dichotomy—merely or more?—is the tension at the heart of Reluctant Capitalists, the perfectly apt title for Laura Miller’s study of the buyers and sellers of new books. Miller’s book briefly surveys American retail bookselling; analyzes the economics of book retailing; and provides a snapshot of the industry at the close of the twentieth century. It covers the history of the new bookstore in the United States through the rise of the superstore, ending just as Amazon.com caught on. It is concerned primarily with the new book trade, focused on large retail chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders and on the smaller independent stores trying to compete with them.
What does this have to do with book collecting? A lot. Every used book was once new, and the ways they were sold initially is part of every book’s story. Miller offers a good introduction to the subject. For two hundred years or more, books were sold along with other dry goods in general stores. Outside of the larger cities on the East Coast, there were few stores, distributors, and sellers that were dedicated to books. The shops that arose in the cities and towns of mid-nineteenth-century America were stuffy affairs, and they intimidated the customers who dared to cross the threshold. Like many early librarians, these booksellers saw themselves as the arbiters and gatekeepers of culture. What they chose to stock—and to whom they chose to sell—determined what was read, esteemed, and important.
At the turn of the century a new group of retailers dispensed with elitism and encouraged customers to shop for books in a friendly, accessible environment. Brentano’s (now incorporated through mergers into Borders) opened its doors for the first time during this period, and department stores like Macy’s and Marshall Fields started book departments. Many new bookstores even supported respectable rare-book rooms.
After the Second World War, department stores extracted themselves from bookselling, and smaller independent shops arose to meet the demands of the increasingly educated population. Waldenbooks and B. Dalton, once small independents themselves, expanded into shopping malls. Borders and Barnes & Noble came next, opening superstores, acquiring the shopping-mall chains, and closing them. Today, Sam’s Club and Costco sell books, too, moving so much volume that they command massive print runs and deep discounts from publishers and distributors.
By the early 1990s, many independent bookstores across the United States were shutting their doors, unable to match the stiff price competition. The number of stores declined, leaving only the strongest operators. The independents formed national and regional associations that provided new avenues for publicity and marketing and the legal and financial means to challenge the monopolistic practices of large chains. Miller follows the evolution of the American Booksellers Association (ABA), once composed of both chain and independent bookstores, into a champion of the independent sector by the mid-1990s. The mentality of the independent movement is that purchasing a book through a local bookstore is an act of aesthetic, economic, and political protest. Whether this will be an effective strategy in the long run or merely an affectation of consumer sentiment remains to be seen.
Miller’s research cuts off in the mid-1990s, and while she does address some of the Internet’s impact on book buying and selling, the world of books has changed radically in the last decade. As Tyler Cowan recently pointed out in Slate, “The real change in the book market is not the big guy vs. the little guy, or chain vs. indie stores. Rather, it’s the reader’s greater impatience, a symptom of our amazing literary (and televisual) plenitude.” The greatest threat to any book retailer isn’t big-box retailers: It’s buyers who expect entertainment, coffee, wide selection, and low prices.
Do these observations apply to the antiquarian book business? The antiquarian business model is different from the straight retail trade. The commodity is rarer and subject to more classical rules of supply and demand. The rare book consumer is not the casual book buyer, although you can trace the evolution of the reader who must have the newest Harry Potter on the day that it is published into the collector who will not settle for anything less than first edition, first printing, and first issue. The dealer’s decision of what to stock also is fraught with more speculation, specialization, and personality than the average retailer.
Like the surviving independent bookstores, antiquarian booksellers have taken the initiative to form retail associations and schools like the Colorado Book Seminars. They are pursuing innovative marketing programs and using Internet technologies to foster growth. “These books don’t sell themselves,” one proprietor told me. “You have to get the story out there about why they’re so interesting.” Among successful dealers, the enthusiasm of the eccentric is melding with the business acumen of the retailer, which recognizes that bookselling is still a business at the end of the day. The future isn’t bleak for books or their sellers. It’s just going to be more interesting.