New Star Blogs

My Careen as a Bookseller (5) :: Wall Street Books

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bestsellers_bookmarkBefore we get to why win­ning the lot­tery set the People’s Co-op Book­store back by a gen­er­a­tion or so, let’s take moment to con­sid­er what’s hap­pened in the book trade since those gold­en days of Expo 86.

Publishing’s image as a sleepy back­wa­ter, which was nev­er real­ly accu­rate — the old­est cor­po­ra­tion in the world start­ed as and still is a print­er-pub­lish­er — can prob­a­bly be attrib­uted to the fact that, from one per­spec­tive any­way, the book trade cir­ca 1980 was a sleepy back­wa­ter. That per­spec­tive was that of the finance sec­tor: banks, the peo­ple who loan mon­ey to cor­po­ra­tions to use as work­ing cap­i­tal. Our his­tor­i­cal­ly low rates of prof­it repelled their inter­est, so to speak. Until, one day, those inex­orably falling rates of prof­it, or ris­ing prices of crude oil, or what­ev­er, final­ly caused them to turn their atten­tion to us.

That’s when we saw the “boom” in book­store chains and big-box retail­ers. Those exam­ples of hyper­trophic growth were not fueled by any prof­its or suc­cess gen­er­at­ed with­in the book­trade itself. Instead, they reflect­ed a hunger to extract more trib­ute from our sec­tor of the econ­o­my. The mon­ey invest­ed by finan­cial insti­tu­tions in the cre­ation and growth of the book chains rep­re­sent­ed a gam­ble albeit a low-risk one, and the mon­ey being ven­tured was not any of ours, at least not in the sense that we might ben­e­fit from its invest­ment. B. Dal­ton and Walden­books, Coles, W.H. Smith, Clas­sic Book­shops: these were by and large not actu­al­ly suc­cess­ful busi­ness­es in the ordi­nary sense. Each and every one of them was an expres­sion of a cap­i­tal­ist-utopi­an vision in which pools of finance cap­i­tal dom­i­nat­ed the world of man­u­fac­tur­ing, labour, &c.

The result was the reshap­ing of the retail book­selling envi­ron­ment, even­tu­al­ly into what we have today. Small, sin­gle-pro­pri­etor book­shops, which for a few cen­turies had been the back­bone of a book writ­ing and read­ing econ­o­my, were being swept away, replaced by high­ly ratio­nal­ized (though hard­ly ratio­nal) retail oper­a­tions owned by large cor­po­ra­tions with spoons in many dif­fer­ent pots, ulti­mate­ly con­trolled by some bank or finan­cial fund which had pro­vid­ed the loan cap­i­tal. The new boss was def­i­nite­ly noth­ing like the old boss.

What that meant in turn for a com­pa­ny like New Star Books — indeed, for a coun­try like Cana­da, with its nascent and frankly frag­ile pub­lish­ing trade — was a shrink­age, begin­ning in the late 1980s (sure­ly a coin­ci­dence), of the shelf space that was effec­tive­ly avail­able to us, though this was not appar­ent at first. The bur­geon­ing chain store phe­nom­e­non went into over­drive with the 1987 acqui­si­tion of the B. Dal­ton chain by Barnes & Noble; and — mon­ey see, mon­ey do — in 1992 in Cana­da, with the takeover of Coles by Clas­sic Book­shops / Smith­Books, which had them­selves merged three years pre­vi­ous­ly.

At first, the con­ti­nent was flood­ed with mas­sive stores fea­tur­ing kilo­me­tres of shelv­ing, cry­ing out for a blan­ket of books to cov­er up their naked­ness. This was the era that coined the term “wall­pa­per” for book­store inven­to­ry: an ear­ly clue that these new mas­ters didn’t have a clue.

But for a while, it was a par­ty, as pub­lish­ers of all sizes were flood­ed with orders to fill those dis­play shelves, and to cov­er those walls. It was nev­er going to last, and this was start­ing to show by 1997 or so.

New Star, like a lot of small­er press­es — Press Gang comes to mind — didn’t “fit in” to the new world of pub­lish­ing and big-box book retail. The kind of books we pub­lished didn’t “work” in this new retail envi­ron­ment. Why didn’t we pub­lish more books like, oh, you know, [what­ev­er]. Inex­orably, as the chains con­sol­i­dat­ed their stran­gle­hold, and as many inde­pen­dents began copy­ing their meth­ods in an effort to com­pete, we were los­ing access to book­store shelf space, which meant eye­balls, which meant read­ers.

I wasn’t con­vinced that there was no inter­est in the books we did, and I wasn’t inter­est­ed in retool­ing the list to pub­lish [what­ev­er] to appeal to the Chap­ters cat­e­go­ry buy­er. As New Star’s pub­lish­er, I had to fig­ure out how to get my books in front of read­ers, or get out of the busi­ness.

That’s where the People’s Co-op Book­store came along and saved the day.

Con­tin­ue read­ing My Careen as a Book­seller (6) ::  The Returns Boom

Start from the begin­ning: My Careen as a Book­sellers (1) :: Before It All Began