‘Aussi triste qe soit un livre, it n’est jamais aussi triste que la vie’ — Chantal Thomas, Souffrir, 73
Dear friends and readers,
Yesterday I went to the monthly lecture and meeting of the Washington Area Print Group, a group of people who live in the Washington, D.C. area and belong to Sharp (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing). You may remember that last July I went to one of their yearly meetings at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia where I delivered a talk, “Mapping Trollope,” now on the Victorian Web. Daniel Raff, of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, a lawyer, teaches business history, has a Ph.D. in economics from MIT, gave a genuinely stimulating talk in which he argued the usual reasons given for the demise of Borders are inaccurate. Then for the first time ever I went out with the group to dinner, a Thai restaurant not far off, where the food was delicious, the company congenial, and we had yet more fun talk.
Prof Raff began his talk by saying there has been little written about economic distribution companies. There is a history of bookselling, but little on the evolving channels of distribution — essential for your business to succeed. Bookselling has undergone several transformations. One occurred in the 1920s with the advent of the Book-of-the-Month club. Another in the 1990s with the success of Amazon on the Net. Two young men began Borders as a used bookstore of 2 rooms on the second floor of a block right by the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. They moved into new books to make a living with the idea that Borders would be a bookstore which readers could come to in order to make discoveries — you could come there looking for a good book on your topic and find it. And then you could browse nearby and find other books you didn’t know about on your topic or theme. Instead of buying from three mainstream large presses, they bought from many smaller different presses. The effect of the first Borders shops as I recall was once you got beyond the tables of fashionable books (the kind winning notice in the New York Times and elsewhere) there would be one copy of a book put in alphabetical order under its subject. It was like a wonderful library where you could take your book away with you forever.
The tale become one of growth upon success. There were soon 16 independent bookstores, still organized and bought for around this idea of discovery and in neighborhoods where there were large numbers of professional or income-generating people who probably read. In the 1990s they were bought by K-Mart and began to expand with the money given them by K-Mart. At some point they had 500 stores, and some of them not in the US. It ended badly, in total collapse. It’s generally believed (and written) that electronic devices (kindle, ebooks, ipads) and Amazon (selling books over the Internet in other places too) killed Borders.
Prof Raff said what happened was the people running Borders expanded too rapidly — within 10 years or so they were a chain of 515 stores. Basically the people running the ever increasing numbers of stores no longer enacted this central idea of coming to the store for Discovery. By the end they were no longer the kind of stores they began as — but were simply another bookstore of fashionable multiple copies on tables in stacks. They had expanded into areas where people don’t come to bookstores looking to discover a good book on their topic. They had begun to have what seemed like tough competition from Barnes and Noble, but if you look you discover that Barnes and Noble did not set itself up as a bookstore where you could come to find a book for real; yes they did have small sections of books alphabetized under subject headings and sometimes just one copy of something, but this was a small number and there were few books around that single copy on the same topic. For Borders when what had been the raison d’etre began to disappear, and they became an ordinary bookstore, they lost customers. Rent was going up while profit was going down.
Secondly, the Borders people failed to make a place for themselves on the Internet and they did not use the Internet in the way Amazon did from the very beginning. They did not hire people who worked to figure out what were the tastes and predilections of individual buyers; who analysed how a particular kind of product was doing. Prof Raff claimed that Amazon never meant to be a bookstore alone; the owner always meant it eventually to become an everything store. Nowadays as many people know Amazon is a poor place to come to discover good editions of books; it sells its kindles and e-books and facsimiles first; sometimes it doesn’t list the best editions; it punishes publishers who don’t make deals with them that it wants by not listing their books.
Prof Raff did not think there was anything inevitable about the demise of Borders. Now that I sit here and have typed out these notes, I am not sure he is right and the general consensus wrong.
The questions asked afterwards and his answers were informative. In response to a question about the role of publishers, Prof Raff talked about how publishers had operated since the 1930s. It was an expensive consignment system where the store could send the book back as long as it was not too shopworn. Publishers were creditors and lost a lot of money this way. You might send 6000 books out; you were not going to know about the profit on these easily or for a long time to come. Publishers made what money they did based on a narrow margin of profit.
I asked about how the English bookstores had managed to survive, and why was it Waterstones was still thriving? As I asked my question, I did remember that when I went into Waterstones I had become aware that although the store could be several floors often the shelves were of popular fashionable books set out by genre, multiple copies abounded and it was not a place to look for the exquisitely right book for your area. It was no Foyles. Prof Raff agreed and then said that the law or agreement against discounting had helped the English (as it still does French and German) publishing enormously. It was true that the British had held out against buying on the Internet and for a long time supported the local good bookstore on the High street.
But, said he, these British library-like stores are no longer as good as they once were. He instanced Blackwell’s in Oxford: it nowadays uses print-on-demand if you want that just right book. It keeps only monographs of wider interest and you need to get onto the Internet to ask them to go to a warehouse where they can print a copy of whatever it is you want. That puts the price up for you but saves money in space and cost of item for them. One person around the table talked of experiences she had had trying to return a book and being refused.
I remembered (but did not say this aloud) it must have been in the year 1997 or so when the Admiral and I came to stay in a Landmark Trust Duke’s Hunting Lodge near Chichester, England — while he was working for NATO. One afternoon he and I found a 5 volume set of Jacobean through 18th century plays printed in 1804 — I had to buy them for cash, pounds, 70 (!) and I did and we had to carry them home on a train, into a plane and to our car at the airport. We experienced Discovery in that bookstore and now I regret intensely I cannot remember the name of the place, for perhaps I could look it up on an Internet Google Map and see a photo of it. I have used these volumes many times, read in them for Trollope too (they contained Cibber and Van Brugh’s The Provok’d Husband, a possible source for The Claverings). They consist of one volume of hard-to-get farces and musicals; two of comedies, two of tragedies, all three topics have with introductory essays on these kinds meant for the serious reader of the early 19th century. I like to believe they were once in a circulating library. Now they sit on my — our — shelves.
A typical lecture evening — On an enjoyable evening Jim and I went and heard Colm Toibin talk
Prof Raff mentioned that one way bookstores are managing to survive is to make themselves a social center, a place literary people can get together. I instanced Politics and Prose in Northwest DC and said as how when I do go there, I do try to buy a book, often not the one that’s being talked about as that may be more expensive, but some book or other. He then talked a lot about this store, saying it had the advantage of location which still mattered. It is the only large bookstore in its areas for a couple of miles around. It is also in an area near at least three colleges and the neighborhood is of upper income and often professional people. It has a loyal clientele who come back for the lectures, a place downstairs which serves a good lunch, and it’s on the Internet. You can check out its calendar, buy books that way, join as a member where you get discounts for books.
There was then a long conversation on the Strand in NYC which still tries for discovery but has less of that than it once did, has some lectures, but relies on its Internet sales across the world. It is also a used bookstore which is a different breed than one carrying mostly new books.
He told comic tales of booksellers in the 19th century who did not keep accurate count of their books for years on end. A gentleman’s business it was. Of the nature of publishing in the 1920s. Of some of his experiences teaching business students when it came to discussing bookselling — not a riveting topic it seems.
A group of us then walked to the Talay Thai where we carried on this talk as well as other topics. I did enjoy the evening and mean to go in May and again go with the group out to eat. At moments we waxed quite merry and gay — over memories of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. This summer the Sharp conference will be in Antwerp but the next time they come to DC or to an area I can get to by train, perhaps I will try again. I do have another topic: the book history of Frances Burney D’Arblay: how she has been seen has been a function of the state of the editions of her journals and diaries as well as novels. I made a sort of half-appointment with a good friend among them to see her once this summer for lunch too.
I will not say I did not feel sad at points. I was with two couples of older people — women with husbands who had not been cut off by premature death and an agonizing disease. This is a phrase I have just read this evening in A. N. Wilson’s The Victorians, a book Jim read two years ago now. It was just the sort of book he read for relaxation. In it I found a favorable description of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now linked to a description of GBShaw’s reading of Wagner’s Ring. Jim loved the Ring and he also loved Shaw: I now own about 20 books by Shaw, letters, essays, plays, and I remember how Jim particularly praised Shaw’s analysis of the Ring. Ironically now Shaw wrote of what Alberich stands for: he is the dwarf amassing great wealth and power by forcing all who come within his ken to work for him for next to nothing and live wretched impoverished uneasy lives. Shaw:
You can see the process for yourself in every civilized country today, where millions of people toil in want and disease to heap up more wealth for our Alberichs, laying up nothing for themselves, except sometimes agonizing disease and premature death.
It is not true that in time you get used to it. Far from healing wounds, time can on the contrary, only make wounds worse – Simone de Beauvoir
To get there I had decided I would not wait for 45 minutes in the middle of the day (it was cold-ish and raining) and took a Uber taxi-cab — now I know how to order a cheaper one and it cost me $6. This resort usually and did make me remember how without Jim I end up in troubles I would not have were he here. Coming home I did wait for the bus as the A2 was said to be there in 5 minutes. I have to get myself to try the A8 which will leave me off at Duke Street a block from my house. I always feel it when I am coming home home and Jim is not here. I found myself for the first time really remembering the urn on the mantelpiece and his photo and the small stuffed doll in the form of a sheep (from Stonehenge) next to it, and thought to myself I will never get over his death and never be disloyal to his memory in any way.
Yvette does usually come out of her room when I come home to greet me and I tell her a little of what happened. The cats come over and before you know it they are miaowing and staying close, on my lap, putting a paw gently on my leg or arm.