by Pat Holt

Tuesday, April 6, 1999



"Stanford Bookstore has been the kind of college store that can bring tears to your eyes," a knowledgeable reader suggests, "because of the single-minded efforts of a few people.

"It's 102 years old and despite the unsavory aspects that have been mentioned in its history, Stanford's famous model as a college bookstore will fall, and bring others down with it, because of a monopolistic situation that is comparable to what is going on with independent general bookstores.."

Those "unsavory aspects" occurred in the mid-1990s, when Stanford was a profitable store in which employees were accused of accepting cars and summer homes to employees as "perks." While a district attorney attempted to bring charges of fraud, the case never went to trial, and the board of directors assembled to keep the store on the up-and-up only failed to stop a hemorrhage of millions that began four or so years ago.

Meanwhile, the college bookstore scene has become even more ruthless than the trade bookstore scene. People handing out leaflets in front of college stores are heard to claim that one website or another can sell the textbooks inside for an additional 20-30 percent off. This tactic alone, which makes seem painfully shy by comparison, has driven college-store customers away by the score.

The two frontrunners in Stanford's case are Follett, which manages about 600 college bookstores in the United States and Canada, and Barnes & Noble, which runs about 350. As the first email in our Letters column (below) indicates, saving a college bookstore that's long been in decline is complicated and difficult - and, at least at Yale University, where the writer attended college, Barnes & Noble does not seem to be doing a bad job.

At the same time, though, we should all join him in asking the same question about college bookstores that we ask about chain trade bookstores. Could that "monopolistic situation" result in a homogeneity that would make Barnes & Noble's textbook stores begin to order, sell and look the same? Since every college in America fiercely protects its individualism, insignias and traditions, one assumes they would all resist mightily.

That's probably why B&N remains invisible as the behind-the-scenes management of so many college stores. As Cathy of Harvard Book Store wrote last week (#50), customers are so resistant to the idea that the venerable Harvard Coop could have been taken over by an unseen Barnes & Noble (it has) that they mistakenly assume the nearby Harvard Book Store is a B&N culprit (it isn't).

Well, let's see what the old Barnes & Noble college store website yields at Here we find access to the sites of all 350 college stores run by B&N, and already a sameness in home menus has indeed sneaked in. Well, we can tolerate some kind of typical B&N streamlinging - at least each college gets its crest or insignia on the page and is allowed some leeway in design.

But look under the heading of "General Books" for each college, and then click to "Bestsellers - Fiction," and a sinking feeling of horror may o'ertake the brain. A sample comparison of lists at colleges beginning with "B" (Babson, Binghampton, Bradley, Brandeis, Brazoport, Brooklyn, Boston); as well as Harvard, Yale, Duquesne, Johns Hopkins, Depauw, Columbia, Lewis & Clark, MIT, Ole Miss, Texas A & M, Cleveland State, University of Portland, University of Chicago, yields the following conclusion:

Despite attempts to individuate each list ("Yale Bookstore Bestselling Fiction - Bestselling Fiction Titles on Campus"), the fiction bestseller lists are exactly the same for all colleges examined except such specialized institutions as the Berkelee School of Music. Further, as of yesterday (4/5/99), these lists are woefully out of date, each one bearing the notation, "As of November, 1998."

(A smaller sample was taken of nonfiction bestsellers with the same result - a November 1998 list that's so out of date even the most out-of-touch undergraduate will laugh at the #1 title, "The Starr Report.")

So that's not too keen, B&N. In fact it's pretty terrifying. Granted, the name of Barnes & Noble is not hidden - it's clearly visible at the bottom of each page (of course, this is the B&N college store site, after all). But the pretense that each bestseller list represents the unique character and interests of each campus doesn't exactly sit well when you see the same damn thing applied to everybody.

With this in mind it's a hoot to read Barnes & Noble's grave testimonial regarding the kind of service a store like Stanford might expect: "Each campus store is customized to meet the specific needs of their community." Tee hee, you naughties.

Follett looks much more professional on its college bookstore website - but then, the company does not try to foister campus bestsellers and makes no apology for hopelessly dull bookstore webpages that look like they've been stamped out of a mold.

What does come through clearly is that Follett wants to take Barnes & Noble on: "On March 5th, 1996, Follett Higher Education Group was awarded a ten year contract to operate the bookstores of the Massachusetts State College System," the site tells us. "Eight of the nine campuses involved in the contract, the largest ever awarded by the Massachusetts State College System, were previously contracted to Barnes & Noble Bookstores."

Perhaps one day soon, the "Goliath vs. Goliath" stories we read in the papers won't be about Barnes & Noble and Amazon but Barnes & Noble and Follett. Either way, the bypassing of independent bookstores - the loss of them, the dismissal of them, the inhalation of them by corporate chains - gets worse every day.


A note in the Authors Guild Bulletin considers the question, "Has publishing recovered?" by looking at the astounding statistics reported by book publishers for December of 1998. Quoting the Association of American Publishers, the Guild says that "adult hardcover sales increased 40% over December 1997, and trade paperback sales surged 39%. Children's hardcovers saw the strongest sales increase, 54% . . . "

You can't blame the Authors Guild for clicking its heels over the improved sales of a house like HarperCollins, which did the nasty two years ago by simply eliminating more than 100 titles to save money. "Harper reported a strong holiday season and a 38% increase in operating income for the quarter," the Guild reports.

That's terrific, but are we talking about the same holiday season in which everybody went nuts over e-commerce, while physical bookstore sales remained flat as a pancake? Because if we are, that means that and other online book suppliers are so deeply entrenched in the mind of the American book buyer that it's going to take years to undo the branding before anybody can sit down comfortably ever again.


How does a small independent store that seemed "doomed from the start" fight off incursions from the chains and Amazon?

Let's go back to the "doomed" part and see. The year is 1992: Roberta Dyer and Gloria Borg Olds, two veteran booksellers in Portland, Oregon, have been wanting to open their own bookstore for years. They sign a lease on a good location in the Northeast section of town - not a particularly lively neighborhood for walk-in traffic but an area that's soon to "open up," experts say - and a few days later they learn that Barnes & Noble is going to open a store just down the block.

"I went home and had a huge glass of wine and a good cry," said Roberta recently. "My husband said, 'Okay, then: Turn the page,' and we did." Even with their own store, Broadway Books, thriving in the location they found, the two owners decided to take a look at their competition. "We walked in the first day that Barnes and Noble opened, sort of holding hands and looking like this" - they clutch each other like the orphaned Gish Sisters braving a snowstorm.

"It was a depressing experience," says Gloria. "The store looked as though it had a reasonably deep inventory on the first day, but you know, it's the sort of place you go back and see fewer titles. We gave them our names, saying, 'We're down the street in case you need anything' - but they've contacted us only occasionally."

Do you ever contact them? "NO."

Broadway Books by contrast opened with a sense of character, a point of view, a flair for community relations and a specialty - books on Judaica, which Gloria had been teaching for many years. Since the two owners drew the plans themselves, they've left room in the wide aisles for plenty of browsing; high ceilings, roll-away bookshelves, table after table of recommended books and stacks of discoveries on the ample counter .

Reading groups meet here on Sunday nights; high school writing classes come to the store at the end of a term so that students can read their works in a literary environment; writers groups also migrate here, and authors give readings. The store, about 70%-30% trade paperback to hardcover, caters to lovers of literary fiction.

"There hasn't been a year that our sales haven't been up from the year before," says Roberta. "Maybe we would have grown faster if Barnes & Noble hadn't been there. But it was much more devastating to us when the restaurant next door went out of business for almost a year – we took a big hit but were pulling out by time they came back."

"We did well from the start because any chain store has its hands tied when competing against an independent," says Gloria. "For example, we can do a publication party for a local book and sell hundreds and hundreds before Barnes & Noble is even able to order it. We've never depended on bestsellers - those sales were taken by Costco and discount stores a long time ago."

Broadway Books has its own discoveries (see Friday's column), but is not interested in high turnover books or even fast-paced systems to ease the load of what is essentially a two-person store. "We're as low-tech as they come," says Roberta. "We're real dinosaurs. As more money flows in, we have to decide: Should we buy a computer or more books?"

Guess what the answer is - and the customers have responded. As Gloria told the Oregonian recently, "Some of our customers are just plain political. They think it makes a difference to their city, to their country, that independent booksellers survive. They don't like hearing that two big corporations in the world own all the books these days. They understand we're not just talking about books here. We're talking about ideas."

NEXT: Surviving downtown; working with the local press.


After much thought I would like to apologize to the staff of Powell's Books in Portland. One of the joys of writing for the Internet is knowing that you don't just file a story and go on to something else. You take part in a discussion about an event or issue and see how it fares under the collective wisdom of many people "out there."

Underlying everything on the Net is a belief that as the story is reshaped by continuing discussion, the facts may remain the same, but experience and opinion help to bring out a larger truth. Thanks to letters from workers at Powell's (one of them printed here last time in #50), I realize that the quote I ran about the "culture" of the staff being "antiestablishment, antiauthority, anticapitalism" - though insightful and probably true - is irrelevant to the matter of whether a union is going to happen or not.

The 3% cap on raises, the changeover from section heads to teams, the distribution of bonuses and benefits - these are the hardcore issues on which a union's future rests. (Political climate, no matter how incendiary now, plays its own role later, I'm afraid.)

Perhaps most surprising was the number of people who wrote in, started to say something about unions but stopped, perhaps because the subject is so volatile. As a former member of 3.5 unions (the .5 was a publishing house's union movement that didn't work out), I would love to see a truly uncensored (and anonymous is you wish) discussion about unions in bookstores and publishing firms, especially with an eye to the specific ways a union can help fight merger mania in publishing and continued loss of independents in bookselling.


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I thought I'd further expand on some of the college co-ops becoming Barnes & Noble unbranded stores. I was a Yalie from 86 to 90, but it wasn't until after I left New Haven (though I've returned every year to pass through) that the neighborhood around Yale picked up.

The unfortunate thing was that it picked up by Yale either buying more real estate or by exercising its landlord muscle and kicking out old tenants at the end of a lease or by raising the rent, including a great old bookstore whose name escapes me. The commercial part of campus towards one end of campus (away from downtown) is now full of fancy little precious stores, including a brand spanking new Barnes and Noble in place of the old Yale Co-Op. It's kind of appalling at one level.

At another level, however, the neighborhood is cleaner, safer, and more appealing to be in. I had to walk through it to get to my on-campus housing every day and night, and although I was never mugged, many of my classmates were. It's been sanitized, which is bad, but it's safer and more pleasant, too. It's too bad that the only way to that solution is homogenization, not working with local businesses to improve the situation or even encourage local retailers and entrepreneurs to expand.

On the Yale Co-Op front, however, Barnes and Noble represents a vast, overpowering improvement. The Co-Op's cash refund for "co-op members" was always pitiful in my years, and the store itself was ugly, poorly run and stocked, and the staff was like an ocean of bitter high school cafeteria workers. The book prices were not good, nor was selection, and the text book annex was really a pain and poorly run.

I visited the new Yale Bookstore last December, and was totally blown away. I walked in expecting to hate it, and found it charming. They completely renovated the place, and it's actually inviting. The selection of books is remarkably good. The computer store inside is enormously better than the old one. The foreign language section is great. And on and on.

Perhaps the difference is that B&N was willing to pour millions of dollars into the store in exchange for long-term residency with a captive audience, especially with those textbook dollars. The Co-Op didn't have access to the same kind of capital - but neither did they appear to have any desire to make the store an inviting and useful place.

I just wanted to move into the new Yale Bookstore, despite my full knowledge of Barnes and Noble's practices.

Glenn Fleishman, search and price compare if you know the book's ISBN # :


Wow. Every time I read a letter or article about someone's unsatisfactory experience with a independent bookseller, I just want to cringe. Admittedly, the "negative remark" I am referring to in Holt Uncensored #48 was really just a casual observation by someone writing to you about ordering through Amazon and getting later recommendations based on he/she/it having purchased a title from them previously.

BUT what I glommed onto was the "not available" remark from the independent bookseller. Hello! Stop Sign! Whoa Nellie! We go through incredible lengths to find books for our customers, new or used, using online and off-line resources, connections and when necessary the ol' "I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine" technique. I think that your letter writer should have a discussion with her bookseller about a more attentive sales approach, and a more customer oriented attitude.

We have ordered hundreds of new and used books, and in our searches have only found 3 titles that were impossible to locate. And hey, looking for one of them, Bobby Seale's BBQ cookbook (that's not the exact title by the way) was a great experience. My husband called the phone number we had for the publisher and spent a half an hour talking to Bobby Seale himself! What a trip! (Remember, we grew up in the SF Bay Area, so we KNOW who Bobby Seale is!) Bobby told us it was going into republication (is that a word? sounds like an election term...) in April. We passed all that info on to our customer (this was at Christmas time) and everyone had a great time (except perhaps for the person that wanted the book for a gift). CUSTOMERS are the name of the game, and books are the medium we are playing with!



Dear Holt Uncensored:

I thought you might find this as interesting as I did. I am a new author -- my first novel, "The Promised Land" was published by Milkweed Editions last fall. Every couple of weeks I use various search engines to search for my name on the web to look for reviews, mentions, etc. that I might have otherwise missed.

As you know, and as others have mentioned, Lycos and some other search engines helpfully pop up a button: "Buy books about ..."

When I clicked the button to "buy books about Ruhama Veltfort" I kind of hoped they'd show my book. But this is what I got:

"Sorry, there are no exact matches for Keywords on Ruhama Veltfort We did find 1 titles that may be close to what you’re looking for. 1 - 1 are displayed below in bestselling order.

"Re-sort my search in: Bestselling, A to Z, Date Published order. 1. Hochstfrequenz-Charakterisierung Von Monolithisch Integrierten Mikrowellenbauelementen Und Schaltungen Durch Zweidimensionale Elektrooptische Feldverteilungsmessungen Special Order: Ships 3-5 weeks. Gerhard David / Paperback / Date Published: August 1997 Our Price: $20.00"

Needless to say, this is not my book. No, it's not at all close to what I'm looking for.

Ruhama Veltfort

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I've been following on and off with morbid fascination the argument about independent vs. chain and virtual bookstores in Pat Holt's invaluable e-mail column and its appended letters. Suddenly I have the urge to add an author's two cents, but since I'm a fiction writer, let me tell you the story.

I've lived in a sophisticated silicon suburb for 25 years, where I teach at the local University and am not unknown in the community. My books get reviewed in the local papers. They get plugged on local radio. I have a new novel coming out from a small press, and we have in the area three substantial independent bookstores. So I have the publisher send some press kits, with assorted puffery including three pre-pub reviews that are raves and one of that calls me "one of the most significant writers of postmodern fiction." Whereupon their publicity people call me, and say the book is being ordered.

These are stores where I've sold scores of books in the past. Several weeks later, I call around to inquire about the availability of the book since I'm about to give a reading and ask how many copies they've ordered. The box score for these three stellar independents is: two, two, and one. At this rate, unless the chains pick up the book, and there's a good chance they won't given the kind of fiction I write, it would be dead in the water.

This is not an isolated experience. Not always but too often in the indies I see mountains of the latest blockbusters and mole hills of the latest quality small press fiction. My heart is with the indies. I have railed against the chains and the conglomerate publishing industry just this side of violence for years every chance. But my head tells me: Internet. I hope what happened to my book here isn't general, because if it is, at least for the time being before they close out us little guys, as I suppose they will when it suits their market strategies, it looks like the virtual bookstores are going to be the only place you can be sure to find the book and books like it.

And I've got 11 or 12 books behind me and a reputation. What's it going to be like for some unknown quality author grappling for recognition? I see the economic logic of the struggling indies' plight, depending on big books for quick bucks, but this is a case of economics slowly forcing like-minded people apart.

I've always directed my readers to the independents, now I wonder whether I can. It may be true that "just in time" ordering can restock the book quickly, but that's not the same as substantial quantities of books selling themselves to browsers in a store. And if the books aren't in the store to begin with, they might as well be sold through Ingram's Lightning Print digitalized on-demand program, which can use, but does not require, the services of a store.

I have no answers for this situation. Do you?

Ron Sukenick