NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #14
by Pat Holt

Friday, November 6, 1998

OH NO, NOT AGAIN
THE UNTHINKABLE HAPPENS

OH NO, NOT AGAIN

Did you see the rumor that Barnes & Noble "is actively involved in negotiations" to buy Ingram, the country's largest book distributor? Holy smoke,

IS EVERYONE IN PUBLISHING IN BED WITH EVERYONE ELSE?

It seems that way, according to former Chronicle columnist Herb Greenberg in the online financial magazine called TheStreet.com. And why not, some business folk say: With online book suppliers like Amazon.com setting up their own distribution systems, and independents' cut of the pie continuing to decline, it makes sense for the Ingram family to sell the book distribution part and be done with it.

From the chain's perspective, the deal would give B&N co-chief Steve Riggio something to do after selling out - pardon me - selling 50 percent of barnesandnoble.com to Bertelsmann and "return[ing] to the parent company to focus on several things, including 'future acquisitions,' " reports Greenberg.

Of course it would mean that Amazon.com could continue buying 58 percent of its inventory from Ingram. But that would mean Barnes and Noble would be selling books to its archrival, Amazon.com, and that is INSANE.

So come on, Federal Trade Commission, let's step in here for once. Ronald Reagan has been gone for a long time. This is a BAD deal for American business, let alone independent booksellers. Even if there's no basis for the rumor, the way things are going in the book industry, with Amazon and barnesandnoble.com losing $13-24 million a quarter, the real losers, as always, will be American readers.

THE UNTHINKABLE HAPPENS

The Planning Commission of San Francisco was packed and tension was high yesterday as a handful of Borders supporters (most of them employees) spoke in favor of plans for a 20,000-square-foot Borders store to move onto Union Street in San Francisco, despite an existing prohibition of stores over 5,000 square feet.

About 30 protestors spoke against the Borders move in a well-orchestrated parade of strongly worded and carefully researched statements that supported four existing bookstores in the area, including Solar Light, the 2,500-square-foot bookstore across the street that would "have to close if Borders wins," said owner David Hughes.

Speakers from retail associations all over the city, as well as other booksellers (City Lights, A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books, Book Passage, Books Inc.) and present customers tried to keep emotion out of it and spoke of practical matters instead - parking spaces, loading docks, trucks in the street, choked traffic, unfair competition, chain store "lies" of the past, "mallification" problems, danger to specialty shops, need for diversity and endangerment of the neighborhood's identity and character. One lone and brave writer, standing in front of Borders executives, decried the chain store's attempt to locate across the street from an independent that had nurtured authors for many years.

After a heady three hours, BLAM! WHAT DO YOU KNOW, the commissioners voted 6-0 against Borders, leaving everybody slightly flabbergasted (Hughes himself had predicted defeat). Looking back, the chair of the commission said that presentation of statistics (how 20,000 square feet would translate into 742 buying customers a day, adding unnecessary traffic to the already congested area) was the most convincing strategy he had seen.

To help other independents who might face the same problem, Hughes has promised to write down the hundreds of steps he and his allies took to win this one, but watch out, he says: "This problem is hardly going to go away. It's just a matter of time before the next salvo, but maybe we'll be better prepared."

Chapter 9 of Remainders of the Day, which originally ran in this column, can be found with the rest of the story in a separate column on this website.