April 16, 2001
8:00 PM   Subscribe

The American Bookseller's Association is taking on the big guys. The trial pits indie bookshops and sellers versus evil corporate behemoths Barnes & Noble and Borders, arguing the big chains get wholesale deal the little guys don't. Does the ABA have any chance in hell of winning?
posted by mathowie (13 comments total)
I haven't read their arguments, but unfortunately they have little chance of success. Unless they can prove the big companies conspired in some way and violated antitrust laws, volume discounts are pretty much allowed. Many Mom-and-Pop stores have learned this lesson via Wal-Mart moving into town. The same with Blockbuster . . . it seems America is doomed to become more and more a series of generic strip malls unless people remain loyal to local businesses.
posted by sixdifferentways at 8:24 PM on April 16, 2001

What are the benefits of shopping at a smaller, independent store over the bigger, cheaper mega-chain variety?

I can see that for specialty items one might want to shop at a store that has more knowledgeable salespeople, and I suppose there are aspects of "atmosphere" that draw some people to smaller stores. Is there something else I've missed? Does it have to do with chain stores drawing excess money out of a community? Or is this a "homogenization is bad" sort of thing?
posted by techgnollogic at 9:14 PM on April 16, 2001

What are the benefits of shopping at a smaller, independent store over the bigger, cheaper mega-chain variety?

Except for specialty stores, nothing. And there were never as many small independent bookstores as people like to believe. In my hometown when I was growing up, which was a pretty decent-sized city, we had not one single bookstore. If the local newsstand's and stationery stores' meager selection, consisting mainly of the top 20 or so bestselling trade paperbacks, didn't suffice, you had to drive 20 miles west to reach a decent bookstore (which was a chain). Even that was just a hole in the wall in a strip mall, and we usually ended up having to special order even then. And all the books were sold at face value 100% of the time. Discounts did not exist. Only when the mall opened up in 1981 did we finally have any local bookstores whatsoever. The two stores there were chains also, but they were franchises, so the owners were local. And these weren't the mega B&N-type stores either; those didn't exist back then. They were the size of every other typical mall shop. But it was an amazingly huge selection to us, since nobody had ever bothered to serve us before. (We do have a Big Ass Borders there now, thank God.)
posted by aaron at 10:01 PM on April 16, 2001

I doubt the ABA is arguing whether or not their bigger counterparts offer more/better choice (and on that criteria customer value) -- they're saying that chains can exert unfair influence on book publishers because of their clout. I would agree that if its cheaper for a publisher to produce and ship say 1 million books to one buyer than it is to produce smaller batches bought by smaller bookshops, that the larger chains can command a lower price per book. Fair enough. But what when larger book chains use their power over publishers to extract special (not economic) privileges , which i think is what the ABA is arguing.

Genuine economic advantages and advantages obtained because of overpowering market dominance may well get blurred at some point: is it right that small stores have less time to pay their bills in order to qualify for a discount, as the article suggests? Sounds a little iffy to me -- Barnes & Noble would tell publishers to piss off, a small shop doesn't have that luxury.
posted by mackieb at 10:49 PM on April 16, 2001

Small bookstores. It's strange, for people in suburbs who have never had a real indie bookstore -- just bad mall bookstores -- places like Barnes & Noble are a blessing and can really improve the quality of life. For people in cities who watch the smaller bookstores go out of business because no one wants to pay more for customized service, a place that invites local authors, has obscure specialties, hard-to-find titles from microdistributors, etc etc. it's tragic.

It's not so much a "homogenization is bad" argument, more that "homogenization is homogenization" and as such, leads to a flattening of culture that reflects the ideas and opinions of a select [and moneyed?] few and not the weird tastes more indicative of the range of opinions and ideas of the entire population. I like going to a lot of smaller bookstores and comparing stock, prices, staff, atmosphere, etc. There are different ones I like to go to on different kinds of days, or for different kinds of books. And yeah, taking money out of a community is less preferable to letting it enhance the culture of your own community, says me. Full disclosure: I work at a bookstore.

As far as the lawsuit, there was the large one when Amazon sued B&N for trying to purchase giant distributor Ingram claiming unfair competition. B&N stopped the sale before the lawsuit went anywhere. There's hope.
posted by jessamyn at 11:49 PM on April 16, 2001

Until a few years ago, the chains were ... if you're old enough to recall ... mall bookstores. The joke was they sold anything but books. The books they sold were bestsellers and a whole lot of giftie-book crap. The only good bookstores were the independents ... if you were lucky to have one. I grew up in Janesville, Wis., and had to travel to Madison (University Bookstore) or Chicago (Kroch's and Brentano's on Wabash) to find a wide selection.

Then Louis Borders came along and invented the book superstore. It's a pleasure you feel guilty enjoying: the best of both worlds. The selection of a deep independent with specialty titles, the comfort of a bookstore you can hang out in, chairs, coffee, out-of-town newspapers (until around 1997-98, this was a godsend), and all with the low prices of a mall discounter. But I remember when these didn't exist at all. The sad thing is seeing a bookstore-type-employee of the classic quiet bohemian variety stuck into a "auto books are that way" job. They run a tight ship and aren't people you can lean on the counter and chat about Baudelaire with.

Something irreplaceable has been lost.
posted by dhartung at 12:09 AM on April 17, 2001

I tend to frequent both the independent stores and the mega-stores. I prefer the independent as they are usually much more knowledgeable of their selection and what they can order for you. The independent stores tend to know their customer base very well and arrange their stores accordingly. The table displays are well focussed toward those who shops there. I miss independent bookstores when I move (Booksmith in the Haight in SF and Green Apple on Clement in SF can not be replicated). In the Washington, DC area the Mystery Books on Connecticut, Olson's, Chapters on M, Politics and Prose, Kramer's, and Reiter's Tech/Science are great stores that offer better knowledge, selection, and help than the mega's do.

I do frequent B&N and occasionally Borders, mostly to check their sales, peruse magazines, and examine books I have seen on-line. The bookshelves in the mega stores always seem to be out of order or in a half random order. The tech book sections are the worst.

Large metropolitan area benefit most from the independent bookstores as they have the customer base and traffic to offer a breadth of selection in their specialty areas. The independent stores need to have access to the same offerings at the mega's as their customer base seems better suited to the niche books the smaller publishers produce.
posted by vanderwal at 5:41 AM on April 17, 2001

This isn't at all the type of response I expected from you. I guess that's expected, to see the unexpected.

I was always a bit uneasy in any of those stores, the coffee fumes go to your head.

Amazingly these large B&M stores are kinda like libraries, people get in, get a book and read it while eating their donut and drinking their mocha, trouble is someone else has to buy a book with brown cup stains and nut crumbs on it.

I find it a lot easier to do book shopping over the net, amazon.com, you can read reviews, notes, lists and so on.
posted by tiaka at 6:13 AM on April 17, 2001

Hmm... I too am guilty of usually buying books over the internet. We have a B&N up here but they never seem to have what I'm looking for... and I'm too lazy to tell them to order it. The only physical places I enter to purchase books are antique stores. Blessed antique stores. You'll never find a 1921 copy of The Odyssey at Borders. Now all I want is Homer's original manuscript.

'course, college does allow me the great luxury of buying shiny, new textbooks at grossly inflated prices twice a year.
posted by Dane at 6:22 AM on April 17, 2001

I'm a voracious reader who's old enough to remember small bookstores (I grew up in the New York area, so we had both Scribners, et. al, and local neighborhood bookshops), but I'm someone who does really prefer today's superstores, simply because the selection is (usually) large enough to suit my needs. I couldn't really care less that the high school kids who work at the Borders in the town where I live now don't know John Donne from John Grisham - I know what I'm looking for and after all, they do know how to operate the computer-based ordering system, in the off chance what I want isn't on the shelf...

That said, I do know a "small bookstore" whose biggest draws are, in no particular order, atmosphere, specialized selection, street theatre and intelligent, opinionated employees: Unabridged Books, a bookstore that specializes in gay titles, in Chicago. But Unabridged's appeal is precisely it's limitation - if there's a gay-related title I'm interested in, my Borders is not likely to have it unless it was published in the last year or two; Unabridged is far more likely to have it sitting on the shelf. But everything else at Unabridged is more expensive (sometimes, a lot more expensive), whereas whatever Borders doesn't have on the shelf, they can get to me in a week or two...
posted by m.polo at 6:31 AM on April 17, 2001

I don't know about you guys, but I skip both the local AND chain stores in favor of.....

the library!

My local bookstore is my local branch, and to support it I donate labor time (re-shelving, etc.)

Having said that, I must note that Borders and the like really did bring a unique service to communities where book stores were utterly absent. The traditional edge enjoyed by small indie bookstores was their willingness to do lots of special orders. With the net, this has ceased to be a relevant advantage. They only have one ace left, and that's superior customer service. Employees in indie book stores usually *read* books, and can make suggestions and help customers who come in saying "uh, I heard an interview with this writer on 'Fresh Air', the title is something about heartbreaking genius..."

Of course, if your local indie is filled with sycophantic book snobs - well, I say let the B&N wrecking ball fly....
posted by preguicoso at 7:08 AM on April 17, 2001

I know what I'm looking for

But that isn't really the point. A good bookstore clerk could tip you off to things you might like, but don't know about. Amazon has made strides in this aspect online, but it's no replacement for a knowledgeable clerk.

But the best place to find good books is generally your library. The staff is usually pretty knowledgeable about their collection, and unless you're just looking for the latest releases, even in small towns they generally have a large selection. There's also the added benefit of not having to actually pay for the books, which is a good enough reason for me.
posted by daveadams at 7:28 AM on April 17, 2001

I thought that when this lawsuit was originally filed (back in 1998, when I was still working at Borders corporate), it had something to do with co-op as well (i.e. publishers give the big chains money to display a book in a certain area, or feature it in a brochure, etc.). I thought the point was that the chains get a LOT of money (at least they did back then) in their co-op programs and the independents don't get offered the same money. I didn't see anything about that in the article that was linked. But I remember that part of the lawsuit had a lot of people worried at the time.
posted by fresh at 1:27 PM on April 17, 2001

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