The Book Retailing Revolution

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In December 1994, in Encino, a posh corner of Southern California's San Fernando Valley, the super aggressive Barnes & Noble book chain opened another of its superstores, this one just a few blocks from one of its arch competitors, the slightly smaller Super Crown. The war for dominance of the book turf continues as new stores open every week, and superstores outdo each other in service, supply, and splash.

To herald the opening of Barnes & Noble's superstore in Encino, the chain ran an expensive full page ad in the Los Angeles Times boasting of the store's unique features. It would, for example, stock a hundred thousand titles as well as more than a thousand different magazines and newspapers from all over the world. A browser could curl up in an easy chair and lose him or herself for a few minutes or a few hours with the latest gem from a favorite author, or bring the book he or she is thinking of buying to the super store's "literary cafe" and partake of an excellent cup of Starbucks coffee while munching on a delicious pastry. The ad suggests that the cafe is an ideal setting for a "passionate literary debate."

In the store's children's section, toddlers can hang out while the bigger kids enjoy such treats as story times, puppet shows, craft exhibitions, and children's author visits.

For music lovers, this Barnes & Noble Superstore offers a selection of more than twenty five thousand CDs, cassettes and videos, and in store listening stations to preview selected recordings. The store also boasts a section where the computer minded can purchase PC software, CD ROMs, and video games.

Are Barnes & Noble and other book retail giants creating a cultural revolution? Is this the New Age of book retailing? The answer is a resounding, yes. Further, the effect of superstores, a phenomenon originated in 1990, may even raise the sagging national literacy levels. Says Barnes & Noble's majordomo Len Riggio, "People who are predisposed to buying books will buy more books in a greatly expanded book space . . . thus creating the idea of importance of books, of possessing books."

A Few Words on Remainders

Recently, while browsing at my local B. Dalton store, I picked up a copy of Bob Woodward's Veil. The book had been published a few years ago at $21.95.1 bought it for $1.49 as a remainder. A remainder is a publisher's overstock of a book that is offered to bookstores when it no longer sells at its full, or even discounted, price. B. Dalton may have bought thousands of copies of Woodward's book at fifty cents or a dollar, and is making a small profit on its sale. A good remainder section attracts buyers to a store, with the added possibility that they will also buy more expensive new titles.

The Book War for Survival: the Chains vs. the Independents

New York's Upper West Side is clearly one of the best markets for books in all of America. Independent bookstores have long established their niche in this intellectually stimulating market. One such establishment, Shakespeare & Company, is a crowded but intimate six thousand square foot bookstore across the street from a block long Barnes & Noble store that opened in spring 1983. The new Barnes & Noble threatened the existence of Shakespeare and other local stores by offering wide aisles, free gift wrapping, substantial discounts, and, yes, the requisite espresso bar. Add to this a selection of 225,000 books and you have overwhelming competition. Commenting on the new giant bookstore phenomenon, Bill Kurland, one of the owners of Shakespeare, said that we are seeing "the Wal Marting of America."

In Denver, the respected Tattered Cover Book Store felt the pain of intrusion in 1994 when Barnes & Noble opened a thirty five thousand square foot store just a mile from its own fifty thousand square foot store. At the time, Barnes & Noble already had four stores in the Denver suburbs.

There is no question that chains such as Barnes & Noble, Borders Group, Crown, and Books A Million (a newer chain) have proved hazardous to the health of small independent bookstores, which traditionally offer limited selections and no discounts. However, in the larger picture, the chains have promoted the sale and reading of books and have, therefore, furthered the business of book publishing.

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