A visit from my sister last weekend led to a little trip down memory lane, as such get-togethers often do. We were discussing books from our childhood, and we reminisced over our favorites. We both remember having personal collections of a few books; most of our reading material was obtained from the library. We puzzled for a while, though, over where we actually bought books; we didn’t remember any bookstores. We grew up in the near suburbs of Philadelphia, certainly not an isolated area. Then it came back: the semi-annual shopping trip to Wanamaker’s, THE department store in center city. The purpose of the trip was to buy new clothes for school, spring and fall. After the agony of trying on multiple items and making the final selection, we were allowed to spend time in the book department. Until now, I had forgotten that major department stores devoted a significant amount of space to books in the 1950s.
This long-forgotten memory inspired me to do some thinking and research on the development of bookstores, at least in my lifetime. I came across a book, Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption by Laura J. Miller (University of Chicago Press, 2006), from which I’ve drawn most of the information here, interspersed with my own memories and opinions. The growth and decline of both independent and chain bookstores can be tracked with changes in our society and shopping habits. My view is that there are signs, at least in bookselling, that we are cycling back to an earlier time.
Before World War II, suburbs were built with the assumption that most people would do their shopping, other than for daily necessities, in the cities. The periodic trip to the city for clothing, linens, furniture, (and books) was the norm. Although the movement of stores to the suburbs, starting with “strip malls,” began in the 1950s, habits take a while to change. Our family had one car, which my father used to commute to work, so Mom didn’t run us to the (non-existent) mall for an afternoon. According to Miller, bookstores were concentrated in the cities, and were “either patrician and clubby or dark and musty,” organized (or not) in a way understood only by the bookseller. “The bookstore was thus assumed to be a serious place for serious or affluent individuals.” Now I know why I have no memory of bookstores in my childhood; they were not places where working class people were comfortable, even on shopping trips to the city.
There IS one bookstore I remember from that time, and I must mention it. Leary’s, a Philadelphia institution from 1850 to 1969, was a favorite of an aunt and uncle who would take us there when they visited from Ohio. There were three floors plus a basement full of used books. It definitely was the “dark and musty” style, and the salespeople, by store policy, did not approach browsers unless asked. There were, by Leary’s estimate, 20,000 square feet of books. The only comparison I can make is to The Strand in New York, but Leary’s was much more “musty.” It was book lover’s heaven, and may be the reason I wound up selling used books, although in a clean and bright store.
Miller does an excellent job of describing the shift to suburban shopping, from strip malls to enclosed shopping malls, and the corresponding evolution in bookselling. Department stores built suburban branches, and continued to have book departments in them. Independent booksellers (are we always behind the curve?), with a few exceptions, stayed in the cities where they felt they could attract the more sophisticated patrons and have enough foot traffic to survive. Still, where there is commercial opportunity, there will be capitalists. Voila! Waldenbooks, B. Dalton and others, started operations in the suburbs. They became staples in the enclosed malls that began to proliferate. Rather than intimidating the potential reader who was afraid she was not sophisticated enough for a bookstore, they made the stores welcoming and ubiquitous, one of many places to shop. Standardization of furnishings and displays took away the elite aura surrounding bookselling. Books became readily available to a vast majority of the population. Independent bookstores, now seeing the future, were, unfortunately, often shut out of the shopping centers and malls. Landlords much preferred chains, which could pay higher rent and withstand lower sales seasonally or during start-up.
The next step for chain bookstores was the “superstore,” coinciding with the development of “big boxes” for other retailers. Miller says the trend was back to a “high culture ‘lite’” ambiance to attract the more affluent customer away from the independents. It worked. Independents were in the crosshairs, but those that survived learned to be warm and user-friendly. There was something of a “culture war,” with independent booksellers decrying the commodification of books (“might as well be toothpaste”), the large volume of space devoted to certain best-selling authors and the lack of knowledgeable staff. Independents kept losing ground, however, as the convenience, selection, and ability to discount offered by large chains proved too attractive to readers.
So where are we now? The chains are in trouble too. B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, Borders – all gone. Barnes and Noble is struggling. The advent of on-line retailers and electronic books has changed the landscape again. I have some affection for chain bookstores. I lived in Washington, D.C., when Crown books first opened. I thought it was a gift from heaven. When I moved to New Jersey and Borders expanded to the east, the manna continued. (I was a corporate drone, not a bookseller, in those days.) They brought books, even if commoditized, to a large audience. Growing up, I was not taken to a bookstore on a regular basis, as my son was, because it was inconvenient for my parents and not part of anyone’s routine. Now children are overstocked with books, as with many other things. Reading has become a part of life for ordinary people in a way that it was not in my childhood. (My sister and I were considered “bookworms,” not a term of respect!) Young people now discuss popular books and series, even at the elementary school level. More quality literature is available to them, since publishers have (had?) large outlets for books. Adults who started out reading the “brand name” authors so prominently displayed are looking for more “meat” once the reading habit is developed. There has also been a benefit to independent bookstores from the expectation that books should be readily available. I was dismayed (actually angry) a few months ago when a customer who shopped regularly at Border’s and less regularly with me, said, “This town needs a bookstore.” My internal reaction was, “And what is this?” I realized in retrospect that she had the expectation that a “superstore” for books is a shopper’s right, just as is Home Depot. She likes my store; it just isn’t the same as a chain. Same or not, I’m there and Borders is not, and more and more people are finding the cozy atmosphere and personal attention they didn’t know they were missing.
I was pleased to see in an AP article this week about BookExpo America that that membership in the American Bookseller’s Association has increased for the third straight year after years of decline. The author attributes this to the growing “shop local” movement, falling real estate prices and the ease of creating and maintaining web sites. I think that there is more to the “shop local” movement than a “feel good” activity like recycling. The economic malaise we have been in for several years has taken some time to affect shoppers’ habits, just as shopping centers did not immediately draw customers from the cities in the 1950s. The real estate disaster has slowly turned people from feeling entitled to have everything they want immediately to considering the real value of purchases. Even those still employed and not in foreclosure are less reckless in their spending; things are just too uncertain. There is a comfort in simplifying things; too much choice in “big boxes” is just too overwhelming. I’m not suggesting that we are returning to the 1950’s, but I think we are cycling away from the big to the small. Purchasing one carefully chosen book, perhaps recommended by a knowledgeable bookseller, may trump “buy two get one free” when all three are ill-considered choices.
Independent bookstores will not be thriving in every street corner, but they never were. I think they will become more common where there is a population to support them, not just in cities. Electronic books and on-line retailers can fulfill the role libraries once did, vast choice at low cost. The most popular books are once again available at department stores, Walmart and Target rather than Wanamaker’s, Dayton’s or Hudson’s. Cheaper paperback books are in the supermarket and the drug store, just as the “pocket books” were at Woolworth’s or the local pharmacy in the 50s. The evolution of bookselling in the last fifty years has created an expectation that quality books should be readily available in an establishment dedicated to literature but accessible to everyone. We can’t go back, but moving forward often means a pendulum swing to a revised version of an earlier state of affairs. I like to think that pendulum is swinging my way.