Before 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