Tag Archive for bookstores

Snapshot of the Revolution in Book Retailing, Circa 1978

Upheaval in the bookselling trade is not a purely 21st century phenomenon. The introduction of cheap paperbacks during the decade following World War Two turned the bookselling trade upside down, pushing the locus of the trade away from small shops located in big city downtowns to newsstands and drugstores, with their ubiquitous spinner racks. Cheap paperbacks helped (along with the introduction of TV into nearly all households) to kill off the formerly lucrative niche of pulp fiction magazine publishing; many of the specialty pulps disappeared altogether (nurse pulps, airwar pulps, and western pulps, to name a few), and the science fiction and mystery pulps shrank back to a handful of titles, the survivors soon reducing their format to the smaller (and cheaper to manufacture and distribute) digest size.

More recently, in the middle to late 1970s, the bookselling trade was transformed yet again, this time by the rapid spread of shopping mall-based national and regional bookstore chains which concentrated on carrying large selections of paperbacks and discounted hardbacks, most of the latter being “remainders,” unsold books which had been returned by stores and then offered by their publishers for resale at steeply discounted prices.

I came across this Time Magazine article from 1978, entitled “Rambunctious Revival of Books,” which gives a sepia-toned portrait of the bookselling trade thirty-five years ago, before the rise of the superstores, when mall-based chains such as Waldenbooks and B. Dalton Booksellers were the Amazon.coms/800-pound gorillas of their day. (Note: This article is brought to you by the Internet Archive Way-Back Machine, so it may take an extra few seconds to load.)

“Once upon a time book retailing was about as exciting as watching haircuts. Hardcover books were often sold in musty downtown stores by fussy bibliophiles, and many readers turned to paperback racks in the more informal atmosphere of supermarkets or drugstores. Today the bookstore business is in the midst of a rambunctious revival. … Largely as a result of their merchandising razzle-dazzle, the chains are inducing people to buy more books than ever. … Helped by the chains’ expansion, stores are springing up, increasing from about 7,300 less than two years ago to almost 9,000 now.

“In the forefront of the merchandising blitz are such chains as Waldenbooks, the nation’s largest book retailer, owned by Carter Hawley Hale Stores. Begun in 1962, the Walden chain now has 498 shops dotted around the country, mostly in suburban shopping malls. In recent years it has been opening a store a week. B. Dalton, a subsidiary of Dayton Hudson Corp., the department store conglomerate, is the second largest bookseller. Dalton too has been growing at a feverish rate in recent years and has 339 stores in 40 states. Other chains include Doubleday stores, an affiliate of the publishing house, and Brentano’s, an affiliate of Macmillan. The chains account for up to half of all hardcover retail sales, and their share of the market grows every month.

“These big companies operate with a cold efficiency that astounds the oldtime booksellers, who often take a warm proprietary interest in their wares. Highly computerized Dalton, which carries about 30,000 titles in each shop, assigns every book a number; when the book is sold the number is entered through the cash register into a computer, which produces a weekly report on what every store in the chain has sold. Slow-moving titles are quickly culled. Most chains concentrate almost exclusively on bestsellers—novels, selfhelp, biographies and the like. …

“Kroch’s, which has a reputation as a quality bookseller with an interest in the literary field, continues to operate in the old tradition; its sales people, for instance, often phone customers to alert them to new books that they might like. Against this, Dalton offers a plethora of autograph parties featuring such guests as Charlton Heston and former Treasury Secretary William Simon, and some selective discounting. Like many independents, Carl Kroch, the chain’s president, insists there will always be a place for the old, full-price shop. Says he: ‘You can’t provide our kind of services on such a large scale. Besides, there’s room for everyone. The public is still underexposed to books.’”

The modern reader has to stifle a laugh at the article’s swooning description of “highly computerized Dalton … (which) assigns every book a number.” Wow! What a wonder of the modern world! But the words of Carl Kroch sound much less dated – because they echo virtually every press release sent out by Leonard Riggio, Barnes and Noble’s chairman, whose firm, the only surviving national superstore chain in America, now finds itself in precisely the same market position as Kroch’s Books was in back in 1978.

Still, this article inspired a lot of nostalgia for me. I was thirteen years old in 1978, what Isaac Asimov has called “the Golden Age of science fiction.” It certainly was for me. I had just discovered Anne McCaffrey, Robert Silverberg, and Ursula K. LeGuin. I began building my science fiction reference library at my local Waldenbooks, tucked away inside the 163rd Street Shopping Center in North Miami Beach, spending my weekly allowance and bar-mitzvah gift money on such tomes as The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and David Kyle’s wonderful pair of beautifully illustrated, large-format histories, A Pictorial History of Science Fiction and The Illustrated Book of Science Fiction Ideas and Dreams (still own all three of them and have been sharing them with my oldest son). That particular Waldenbooks, by the way, was where I met the first, great (unrequited) love of my life, a cultured young lady seven years my senior who was working as a bookstore clerk to pay her way through college. The nearest B. Dalton Bookseller was downtown, at the Miami Omni Mall; due to their well-stocked history section, that was my go-to source for big, thick, photo-choked histories of warships and armored vehicles. Four years later, when I went to New Orleans to attend Loyola University, I discovered a Brentano’s Books at the Shops at Canal Place mall, located downtown near the Mississippi River; it was a charming spot at which to enjoy a cappuccino and page through an imported art book.

I imagine that come 2048, thirty-five years from now, some other commentator will come across an article in the Internet Archive Way-Back Machine (or its future equivalent) from Forbes or The Wall Street Journal or Wired, describing the disruptive impact of Amazon on the bookselling trade and the death-throes of the physical superstores. I wonder whether that middle-aged commentator will look back on his or her teen book-buying years and remember the experience of shopping on Amazon with the warm glow of nostalgia?

Bookseller Addresses Books-On-Demand: A Winning Proposition?

An Espresso book-making machine at the McNally Jackson bookstore in Manhattan

My friend Alan Beatts, proprietor of Borderlands Books in San Francisco, one of the country’s largest science fiction and fantasy specialty stores (with a wonderful attached bakery and coffee shop!), recently carried out research on the feasibility of purchasing an Espresso Books-on-Demand machine for his store. I’m proud to say my blog article on the future of the literary ecosystem sparked his interest in contacting one of the On Demand Books Company’s sales reps and running figures on various purchase and leasing options. Plus, the sales rep shared with Alan utilization figures from bookstores which are already operating Espresso machines.

What Alan discovered makes for very interesting reading, particularly for anyone interested in bookstores, book retailing, and micro-press publishing.

Alan writes that it can be financially feasible, even profitable, for a medium to large-size bookstore to purchase and operate an Espresso Books-on-Demand machine, even given the machine’s not inconsiderable hundred-thousand dollar price tag, plus thousands of additional dollars in licensing fees for the machine’s software. However, the experience of booksellers who have already invested in one of the units indicates that, especially in the earliest years of operation, the bulk of the machine’s usage comes not from customers purchasing commercially available books-on-demand, but rather from self-publishers:

“… (H)ere’s the surprise — most of the books sold are neither public domain titles via Google nor are they in-print titles from publishers. In the first year, 90% of the books printed by the current crop of in-store POD machines are self-published by customers of the bookstore. In other words, someone comes into the store with an electronic file of their book, gives it to the store, and then the store prints it for them on the EBM.”

This finding dovetails quite neatly with my proposition in the comments to my earlier article that “independent book sellers who opt to lease a machine do so in some sort of partnership with a group of regional small presses (and self-publishers) in their area, spreading the costs of the lease across a wider group of benefitted parties.” This kind of partnership, if in an ad-hoc fashion, is already developing, centered on the few dozen bookstores which currently run Espresso book making machines.

Alan makes some very pertinent points, however, about the level of hand-holding required from the owners and operators of the Espresso machine when working with self-publishers and micro-press publishers, versus the considerably lower level of effort and customer service required to simply print out commercially available books-on-demand. He suggests that not all bookstore owners will want their stores and staffs to become equivalent of Kinko’s Copies.

However, some store owners will find ways to make it work, both for themselves, their book-buying customers, and micro-publishers in their area. If enough bookstore owners and micro-publishers move to the model I suggest in my “future of the literary ecosystem” article, economies of scale begin to apply, and cooperative networks of writers, micro-publishers, and booksellers will be able to rapidly multiply.

Read Alan’s article. It’ll get you thinking…

What Kind of Literary Ecosystem Do We Want to Build?

As readers and as writers, we’ve been watching the ecosystem of publishing, book distribution, and book retailing morph before our eyes on a continual (and seemingly accelerating) basis for at least the past five years. Are we stuck being onlookers to the March of Progress, having to content ourselves with whatever sort of literary landscape market forces leave us with? Or can we harness our powers as literary consumers and literary producers to help steer the market and possibly create a literary landscape we’d actually like to inhabit?

Many thousands of words have been written recently analyzing the evolving publishing world. Many issues are a-swirling in the present unsettled climate—agency pricing vs. wholesale pricing; Amazon vs. Apple and the Big Six publishing houses; Amazon vs. an alliance between Barnes and Noble and Microsoft; the efficacy and marketplace side effects of Digital Rights Management (DRM) for ebooks; and whether print books will survive into the third decade of the twenty-first century. Being both a reader and a writer myself, and potentially a publisher in the near-term future, the following articles have led me to do a good bit of pondering; so before we get around to my prognosticating, let’s take a look at a few recent articles, shall we?

Mark Corker, the founder of Smashwords, a major ebook publisher and distributor, discusses the implications of the federal lawsuit brought against Apple and five of the Big Six publishers for allegedly conspiring to fix ebook pricing and counter Apple’s rival, Amazon; Corker comes down in favor of the practice of agency pricing, favored by Apple and its publishing allies, versus the wholesale pricing preferred by Amazon, stating that allowing publishers and writers to control the pricing of their books will serve customers by ensuring a diverse marketplace. Preston Gralla, writing for Computer World, amplifies many of Corker’s points. Both articles came on the heels of author Scott Turow’s broadside, distributed to the members of the Authors Guild, of which he is the current president. Meanwhile, author Libby Sternberg (among others) supports Amazon and says the demonization of the company is out of line, as its competitive zeal is providing lower prices and greater accessibility to readers and consumers.

Amazon’s aggressiveness with its retail partners, typified by its pulling of 5,000 titles distributed by the Independent Publishers Group from its Kindle Store, has been inspiring a good deal of criticism and pushback. The Educational Development Corporation, a small publisher of children’s books, declared Amazon to be a “predator” and removed all of its titles from Amazon’s virtual shelves, costing itself $1.5 million in revenue but declaring they “were better off without them (Amazon).” Amazon’s sales of the Kindle Fire may have “fallen off a cliff” recently; big-box retailer Target will no longer sell the Kindle in its stores; and online retailing rivals eBay and Wal-Mart are both set to roll out greatly improved search engine technologies on their sites to better compete with Amazon.

Cory Doctorow, in a column written for Publishers Weekly entitled, “A Whip to Beat Us With,” describes how the Big Six publishers, in their zeal to not lose purchasing dollars to pirates, have actually shot themselves in the foot with their insistence on only selling books with Digital Rights Management (DRM). This has allowed Amazon to essentially “lock in” its vast customer base to its Kindle platform, since DRM does not permit Kindle owners to legally transfer their libraries of ebooks onto a competing platform. The Big Six publishers have thus ceded a great amount of market power to Amazon, allowing that company to steadily increase its fees and charges to the publishers who wish to have their books sold on Amazon’s Kindle Store, reducing the publishers’ margins (or blocking their access to the Kindle Store should they not come to terms dictated by Amazon, as has happened with Independent Publishers Group, distributors for the books of over 700 small presses).

Tor Books, the largest publisher of science fiction in the US, a subsidiary of German media conglomerate Holtzbrinck, recently reversed their policy on DRM. More than a decade ago, Tor released some of their titles as ebooks through a deal with Baen Books, but was forced by top Holtzbrinck managers to cease, due to Baen’s stand that they would only distribute ebooks without DRM. However, now Tor and their subsidiary imprints will return to their prior practice of distributing ebooks minus any DRM, citing customers’ preferences.

In a boost to Barnes and Noble’s Nook e-readers, currently second in sales to Amazon’s Kindles, Microsoft will be investing heavily in the Nook platform, and rumors are swirling that Microsoft will the Nook app a part of their upcoming Windows 8 operating system. This alliance represents Microsoft’s latest attempt to compete in the tablet market and Barnes and Noble’s latest effort to raise enough funds to remain competitive with Amazon.

So that’s the news of the publishing world. The majority of recent commentary regarding the changing literary ecosystem tries to gauge where things are most likely headed — i.e., what sort of literary ecosystem are we most likely to get stuck with? What will market forces dump in our laps five, ten, or fifteen years down the pike? What elements of the current ecosystem are most likely to survive, which will perish, and what may replace those elements that die off?

Based on these recent developments, I’ll put on my own Amazing Criswell sequined tuxedo and make a few predictions.

Within a few years, the Big Six Publishers will be down to the Big Five or Big Four, and one of them will be Amazon.

Margins are getting tighter and tighter in the publishing business. Several of the big publishers have traditionally made the bulk of their profits from their textbook publishing, which has benefited from a “captive audience” and whose continual cost increases have been absorbed by federal student loans. However, a great portion of textbooks will soon be distributed in ebook form, which should reduce prices (and margins) considerably. Also, pricing competition from Amazon (and other online retailers which rise to fight for pieces of Amazon’s market) will continue to put pressure on the profit margins of the traditional big publishers.

Here’s the rub — most of the current Big Six publishers are fairly small components of much bigger multinational conglomerates. Random House is a part of the German conglomerate Bertelsmann, which also owns the RTL Group (European radio and TV), Arvato (international media and communications), and Gruner and Jahr (European magazine publishers). Simon and Schuster is owned by CBS Corporation, whose primary businesses are commercial broadcasting and television production. HarperCollins is part of the sprawling News Corp, which owns newspapers in the U.S., Great Britain, Australia, and throughout the Pacific, in addition to running Fox Broadcasting, 20th Century Fox Studios, and satellite and cable television operations throughout Europe, Asia, and the U.S. The Hachette Book Group is a subsidiary of the French multinational corporation Lagardere, which operates radio and television stations, advertising firms, retail stores, aerospace firms, and sports and talent management agencies in forty countries. Only the Penguin Group (a division of the British conglomerate Pearson) and Macmillan (owned by the German company Holtzbrinck) are owned by larger companies whose main business is publishing (Random House may also be considered part of this grouping, since book publishing makes up at least half of Bertelsmann’s business — although a lot of their revenue comes from textbook publishing). The other conglomerates, for whom book publishing represents a relatively small part of their operations and a smaller part of their profits, may be greatly tempted to sell off or even dismantle their publishing arms as margins get tighter and tighter. Those members of the current Big Six who opt to remain in the publishing business will likely merge many of their existing imprints and concentrate more and more on sure-fire best-sellers (or those projects thought to be sure-fire best-sellers): books by celebrities, media figures, or prominent politicians, or based on popular media properties. A handful of old-line literary imprints, such as Alfred A. Knopf, Scribner, and Little, Brown & Company, may survive as money-losing prestige or “halo” businesses for their corporate ownerships. Alternatively, such famed imprints may be sold off and reemerge as independent small presses.

Independent bookshops will see a modest resurgence as superstores pull back to their strongest markets.

Just as our small, ratlike, mammalian ancestors found some breathing room to expand and evolve upon the extinction of the dinosaurs, so will independent bookshops and small, regional chains of bookstores reclaim some of their former market share as Barnes and Noble shrinks the brick-and-mortar retail side of their business to focus on their most profitable locations. Membership in the American Booksellers Association, the nonprofit industry association of independent bookstores, peaked at 5,500 members with 7,000 retail locations in 1995. Their membership continuously declined for the next fourteen years, bottoming out at 1,401 members in 2009. In 2010, they saw their first increase in membership in a decade and a half, a modest increase to 1,410 members. I don’t foresee their bouncing back to anywhere close to their peak of 5,500 members, but an increase to about half that number would not surprise me, as small business people in more and more communities, which have already lost their Borders Books and Music and which may soon lose their Barnes and Noble, seek to feed an appetite for book browsing and coffee drinking which was whetted by the superstores. I foresee a decent percentage of independent bookstores having a print-on-demand instant bookmaking machine on site to supplement their physical stock, perhaps relying upon catalogs that customers can browse through before making their POD purchase (see more below regarding how I would prefer to see the independent bookstore sector evolve).

A number of literary agencies will evolve into small publishing firms.

This shift is already beginning to occur. As the numbers of imprints and editors at the Big Six publishing firms continue to contract, and the majority of midlist authors move either to self-publishing or small presses, literary agents will find themselves with fewer and fewer opportunities to make money through selling clients’ books to publishers. To make up their losses, they will need to increasingly rely upon their skills as macro-editors and project packagers, adding value to writers’ work (and earning commissions and fees from writers) through pulling together teams of cover artists, book designers, publicists, and copy editors.

The lines between small presses and self-publishers will begin to blur.

As certain self-publishers show special skill or capability at promoting their works, they will begin attracting other writers who write similar books, but who lack the time or proclivity for successful publicity campaigns, who will request the self-publisher to distribute their work in exchange for a cut of the proceeds. Ridan Publications is a good example of this; Robin Sullivan, who had prior experience in both software design and public relations, began electronically publishing her husband Michael J. Sullivan’s fantasy novels, and she proved to be so successful at this that other writers, including Joe Haldeman and A. C. Crispin, began flocking to Robin’s imprint to distribute their ebooks. I believe Gavin Grant’s and Kelly Link’s Small Beer Press had a somewhat similar genesis.

Meanwhile, existing small presses will move more aggressively into the ebook realm and will find new ways to capitalize on their small staffs, short decision-making chains, and relatively quick production cycles (versus the traditional large publishers) to rival self-publishers in their speed of putting out fresh, tightly targeted product lines. The most successful small presses will emulate Baen Books in developing publisher-specific brand identities, as recognizable to the reading public as the personal brands established by certain best-selling authors (such as Stephen King and Tom Clancy).

As Amazon continues to encroach on what has been the territory of the Big Six publishers, relatively new online competitors will seek to compete with Amazon in the publishing space, copying its model or seeking to improve upon it.

Amazon has built and continues to refine a vertically integrated production, sales, and distribution company not dissimilar from the Hollywood studios of the first half of the twentieth century. Those studios locked in their talents and draws, the actors, actresses, directors, and screenwriters, through exclusive contracts, then distributed the films they produced through chains of movie studios that they owned. They then made money off ticket sales and the sales of concessions. Similarly, Amazon is in the process of signing top-tier authors to contracts, whose books they distribute both through internet sales and shipping of printed editions and electronic distribution through their Kindle devices. Amazon is also currently the favored distribution channel for self-publishers. Of even greater benefit to the company is that wide distribution and use of Kindle devices by their book-purchasing customers gives Amazon continual opportunities to cross-sell those customers on Amazon’s thousands of other types of items for sale, based on that customer’s past buying history (all with “free,” or rather pre-paid but subsidized, shipping included if the customer has signed up for Amazon Prime).

Until the federal government decides to insert itself and break up Amazon’s production and distribution arms (as they did with the movie studios in the middle of the last century), this is simply too lucrative a business model to not attract imitators. The Nook alliance recently entered into by Microsoft and Barnes and Noble may presage such an effort. Other major players in the internet commerce space, Apple or Google or Wal-Mart or eBay, may combine their resources to create business entities to directly compete with Amazon. A business such as the Independent Publishers Group (IPG), which currently distributes the books of over seven hundred small presses and which has recently crossed swords with Amazon over fees and percentages, may decide to move into the online retail space. Or companies which have not yet been formed may arise to challenge the current eight hundred pound gorilla of e-commerce. I believe a gradual abandonment of DRM by most publishers of ebooks will make it easier for competitors to Amazon and its Kindle platform to emerge, as existing Kindle owners will feel less trepidation at the thought of switching to a newer e-reader platform if they know they will be able to (legally and easily) transfer their e-libraries.

Print books will not go away. However, there will be relatively fewer of them; certain types of books will continue to be published primarily as print books, while other types will be published primarily as ebooks.

I anticipate that the majority of textbooks, technical books, reference books, popular nonfiction, and what I’ll term “disposable” fiction (fiction meant to be consumed as entertainment and then discarded, rather than held onto for further reference and re-readings) will be published primarily in ebook form. Books relying heavily on illustrations, books intended for children (many parents won’t want to entrust an e-reading device to a young child), “permanent” fiction (fiction which a reader intends to display on a shelf or to re-read), books purchased to be given as gifts, and books intended to be collectibles will continue to be published primarily in printed formats. Some publishers will do quite well by focusing on the book as a beautiful, cherished object and producing books which can be appreciated as handicrafts, as well as platforms for prose.

So that is where I believe the literary landscape is trending in the next five to ten years. While there is certainly value to be had in this type of prognostication, I feel that it is not sufficient. As readers, we do not need to act as passive consumers in the literary marketplace; as writers, we do not need to act as helpless, powerless “small cogs” in the publishing machine. Perhaps more so now than at any time in the past, we, writers and as readers, have the potential ability, if we wish to exercise it, to influence and to build portions of the emerging literary ecosystem. We can become, in law professor/author/blogger Glenn Reynolds’ term, an “Army of Davids.” But before we can do this, we need to figure out just where it is that we wish to go from here. As a reader, what sort of literary world do you want to be enjoying ten years from now? As a writer, what sort of publishing world do you want to be working in ten years from now? Here are questions we need to be asking (to which I add some suggested answers):

What do readers want?

— quality fiction that they enjoy and feel is worth their expenditure of time and money
— a reasonably reliable system of recommendations, i.e.: gatekeepers they can trust
— convenience and accessibility
— reasonable prices

What do some, but not all, readers want?

— a sense of community; the ability to share their love of particular books with others
— the joy and excitement of stumbling upon an interesting book they had no prior knowledge of
— the ability to communicate and interact with their favorite writers
— the ability to combine the acts of reading and book browsing with other pleasurable pastimes, such as eating and drinking, listening to music, or hearing a lecture
— beautiful, durable editions of favorite works, which are pleasing to the eye, nose, and hand

What do writers want?

— time to write
— opportunities and guidance to improve their work
— an audience
— opportunities to earn money from their work
— the appreciation of their peers and critics

What do some, but not all, writers want?

— the opportunity to write full-time
— control over the editing, formatting, and presentation of their work
— opportunities to interact directly with their readers
— opportunities to collaborate with other writers
— opportunities to promote themselves, their works, and works by other writers whom they admire and enjoy

So, taking these various needs and wants into account, what kind of literary ecosystem do I want to live in five or ten years down the road? If I could terraform that future ecosystem (to use a science fictional term), what would I create, within the bounds of the powerful trends I mention above?

Book Publishing

For the overwhelming majority of midlist writers, those without a history of best-selling books and those without a pre-existing “platform” of fame and public recognition, traditional publication by a large publishing house will be (and, for the most part, already is) a fading dream, a “winning the lottery” type of event. Most of us are simply going to have to do a whole lot more of the business end of things ourselves, if we hope to attain any presence in the literary marketplace. By the business end, I mean publicity, reader outreach, editing, and book design.

Some fortunate writers will find themselves with both the skills and the time to do all or most of these tasks themselves. Some will have the financial resources, thanks to a financially supportive spouse, inherited money, investors, or a stable and remunerative “day job,” to contract out all or some of these functions to specialists who perform work for hire. Some will have a spouse or significant other who is willing and able to perform these tasks. Some writers, whether working as a solo act or as the nucleus of a micro-publishing team, will discover great success at amassing an audience, whether through the exceptional quality of their books or through a highly effective business plan, or a combination of these.

Other writers, however talented they may be, will find themselves less gifted with resources. They will not have the time or the money to engage intensively with the business side of publishing or to hire contractors to do this for them. They may have some time and some money to invest, but not enough to amass more than a token readership. Or, like many writers throughout literary history have been, they may be socially withdrawn or self-isolating individuals, who lack the personality traits which allow for successful self-promotion and social networking.

As a reader, I don’t want writers who fall into that second group to be de facto barred from the marketplace, or only able to enter the marketplace in a feeble, exceedingly limited fashion. Just think how many immortal books we would now be denied had the skills of successful self-promotion been essential to publication and distribution during the past few hundred years. Hemingway and Vonnegut were formidable self-promoters. But was Kafka? Was Raymond Carver? In the realm of science fiction, was Philip K. Dick? Their works have only survived and come down to us readers of subsequent generations because they have had champions. Editors at major publishing houses, in the past, have often served as champions of writers unable or unwilling to champion themselves. But as I note above, there will be fewer editors at fewer major publishing houses in years to come, and those editors will have less freedom to take risks on pushing the work of obscure figures.

I think many writers enjoy helping other writers. I think this is so because writers were readers before they ever became writers, and thus learned to cherish other writers, and because writing is a solitary, lonely business and many writers hunger for a community of their fellow enthusiasts. I think as it becomes more and more crucial for us to assume greater responsibilities for the business side of our writing careers, it behooves the more successful among us to help our less fortunate, less resource-endowed fellow writers to pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps. Because we will benefit as readers and potentially as business people, and because creating community is a source of joy and fulfillment.

I envision the growth and spread of writers’ co-ops. Such co-ops may have as their nucleus a self-publisher who has achieved notable success on the business side and who wishes to share that success and share profits with other writers (such as the example of Robin and Michael J. Sullivan’s Ridan Publications). Or they may arise from a teaming of a group of writers who seek to pool and multiply their limited resources, each of whom can contribute something in the way of editing, book design, reader outreach, distribution, or publicity. Ideally, these writers’ co-ops would be made up of writers with broadly similar or compatible works, so that the co-ops, essentially small presses, could develop strong, memorable brand identities that set them apart in the minds of potential readers. The Baen Books brand means military-oriented, action/adventure science fiction and fantasy. Tachyon Publications has come to be known for highly specialized anthologies of science fiction or fantasy, compiled by erudite and opinionated editors. The Night Shade Books brand implies literary fantasy and horror in non-traditional settings. Purchasers of books from these publishers don’t only shop the books’ authors; they also shop the publishers’ full lines, because they have a good idea of the qualities books in those lines will have, and they like those particular qualities.

Much has been written about the diminishment of traditional gatekeepers in the literary marketplace. Some applaud this development. However, I believe that gatekeepers, as signalers of quality to potential readers, will continue to play a key role in the literary ecosystem. Otherwise, how can readers be expected to choose from the millions of ebooks and POD books which will soon be or are already available? Clogging one’s e-reader with too many poorly written but inexpensive ebooks can lead readers to throw up their hands and seek out more reliable sources of entertainment and pleasure. Writers’ co-ops can serve as a new mode of gatekeeping/quality signaling. In order to be desirable entities for writers to join, writers’ co-ops would have to earn in the marketplace a reputation for putting out quality work. In turn, in order to preserve their hard-won reputations for quality, the writers within a writers’ co-op would vet potential newcomers’ work before bringing them onboard. Promising beginners whose skills aren’t quite polished enough could be referred to writers’ workshops organized by the co-op, and their early, “not quite ready for prime time” works could perhaps be published as free or near-free editions, either online or as downloads, available for readers who would like to sample the works of promising up-and-comers and offer feedback. The co-ops could develop talent the same way major league baseball uses the minor leagues to develop promising ballplayers. Writers’ co-ops could hire outside editors for the books they publish, or they could utilize internal talent, with writers editing each other’s books.

All members of a writers’ co-op would be expected to publicize, not only their own works, but the co-op’s full line of books, utilizing personal blogs and websites, appearances at their region’s bookstores and libraries, and appearances at conventions and festivals. Baen Books has pushed this model very successfully; I’ve been to a number of science fiction conventions where a particular Baen author or editor has served as an advocate for the full line of Baen’s books, often presenting slide shows or multimedia presentations featuring the cover art of recently published or soon-to-be published books from a number of Baen’s stable of writers. This model lifts a good bit of the publicity burden from individual writers’ shoulders (who but the wealthiest or best supported can attend conventions or bookstore appearances all over the country, or even much more than an eight-hour drive from their home?). It also multiplies the publicity reach of a small press, assuming that small press features writers who live and travel in different parts of the country and whose websites, blogs, or Facebook or Twitter feeds are followed by separate audiences.

Book Selling and Book Buying

I love bookstores. I don’t want to see bookstores go away. I enjoy the act of browsing and the pleasures of discovery. I like “romancing” a book before I buy it, browsing it at different stores or on several visits to the same store, allowing my desire for it to build before I surrender to the purchase and take it home.

That said, as a dedicated book browser, I find that large chain stores can become boring. The temptation upon traveling to a different town to visit that town’s Barnes and Noble is lessened by my knowledge that this new Barnes and Noble will carry 99% of the same stock as my Barnes and Noble store back home.

A good part of the charm and attraction of visiting independent bookstores is not knowing what they may carry. Many commentators on modern American culture bemoan the creeping homogenization of American regions, cities, and towns, how a traveler to the outskirts of Albuquerque will find many of the same stores and restaurants as he would in the suburbs (or center) of Albany. In my preferred future of a gobsmacking multiplicity of small presses and writers’ co-ops, bookstores could differentiate themselves and offer increased value to readers by partnering with their regional presses and becoming advocates for those regional presses and regional writers. Most independent stores cannot carry the breadth of stock that a Barnes and Noble superstore can carry; none, of course, can carry the breadth of choices offered by an Amazon. At least not physically. However, new and greatly improved (and continually improving) print-on-demand (POD) services can conceivably allow even a small, intimate independent bookstore to offer the same choices as an Amazon, without the delay of shipping (for those readers who will continue to prefer printed books). I expect the most forward-looking bookstores to maintain at least one book-making machine in their store, in addition to their physical stock of books. Adjacent to the machine, they could offer browsers computers, printed catalogs of books, and, from the regional small presses, pamphlets with the cover and first chapter or first story of their various offerings. That way, bookstore owners could maintain on hand “sample” copies of their slower sellers and of tomes from their regional small presses, printing individual copies for customers as needed, avoiding the cost of maintaining a large inventory. Customers could enjoy a cup of coffee and a pastry while their selection is being printed and assembled (or, having sampled a book in the store, they could have an electronic copy downloaded to their device).

Bookstores could partner with regional small presses and local writers to offer book discussion groups and other social events. Local stores would still offer a full range of nationally distributed books (particularly those stores with book-making machines), but they could specialize in regional offerings. Conversely, small presses could rely upon both print-on-demand services (such as CreateSpace and LightningSource) and on book-making machines at their local booksellers to distribute printed copies of their works, selling their ebook versions on their own websites or through e-commerce sites. A terrific example of this sort of symbiosis between an independent bookstore and its local small presses is the mutually beneficial relationship between Borderlands Books in San Francisco and both Tachyon Publications and Night Shade Books (in fact, Jeremy Lassen, one of the founder partners of Night Shade Books, once worked at Borderlands Books). I could imagine tour groups setting up regional bookstore tours for avid readers; such tours would be justified by the fact that different stores in different communities would specialize in works from different regional small presses, offering literary tourists true diversity.

So, my fellow readers and writers, that’s my vision of tomorrow’s literary ecosystem. What’s yours? What would you like to build?

Last Chance for Borders Bargains!

This is a Public Service Announcement from Fantastical Andrew Fox.com, the Website That Wants to Be Your Pal (TM).

BEEEEEEEEEEEEEP. {Strange whirring sound, followed by series of BLAAATs.}

This is a message from Fantastical Andrew Fox.com regarding a Book Buying Opportunity. Borders Books and Music has entered the final week of their liquidation sale (according to the emails they’ve been sending me daily; however, I strongly suspect they will have a Post-Liquidation Liquidation Sale, and maybe a Post-Post Liquidation, We Really Mean It Now Sale). All items in all remaining stores have been marked down by 60% to 80%. There are also some very nice deals on lightly used blonde wood bookshelves (three for $100; a real bargain if you have a large library and plenty of open wall space; if I had room, I’d pick up some of these myself).

Genre fiction (SF, fantasy, mystery, and romance) is marked down 60%. So are bargain books (marked down an additional 60% from their original bargain prices), graphic novels (lots and lots of manga was left in the store I went to, but not much from non-manga publishers), CDs, DVDs, and history. General (or “literary”) fiction is marked down 70%. Political analysis and philosophy are marked down 80%. Rather interesting commentary on the relative market values of those various categories of books (looks like nobody wants to read about President Obama, either pro or con).

In the store I visited (Woodbridge in Northern Virginia), ALL of the toys and children’s books were gone. The top mark-down for those items was 50% off. Good thing I stocked up for Hanukkah for the three boys a week and a half ago, while Borders still had some kids’ stuff left. However, there are still plenty of Young Adult books in stock, along with a good bit of manga.

Here’s what I treated myself to yesterday (plus a book on Blue Ridge Mountains birding for the missus):

Philip K. Dick: Four Novels of The 1960s / The Man in the High Castle / The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich / Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? / Ubik (Library of America No. 173) — 60% off

The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Definitive Retrospective of His Finest Short Fiction — 60% off

A House for Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul — 70% off

Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis — 70% off

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem — 70% off (really should have been labeled “science fiction,” but anything by Lethem is automatically [Capital] L Literature, so I got an additional 10% knocked off; thanks, snobs!)

Buying Books in the 1970s, pt. 3

a great find from Starship Enterprises

Here’s the third part of my mini-memoir of buying books as a kid in the 1970s in North Miami and North Miami Beach (to go to part one, click here, and to go to part two, click here). Thus far, we’ve taken little memory trips to Burdine’s Department Store, an unnamed cigar shop, Worldwide News and Books, the Arts and Sciences Bookshop, and one of the two binary stars my young reading life orbited around, A&M Comics and Books (fondly remembered as Arnold’s). Today, we’ll visit Starship Enterprises and the other binary star, the Walden’s Books (not WaldenBooks–the corporate bigwigs hadn’t renamed the chain yet) at the 163rd Street Shopping Center.

Starship Enterprises: This was a comic book store located on the opposite side of 163rd Street from Worldwide News and Books and a block or two east, closer to the railroad tracks. There’s still a comics shop in the same location — Villains Comics and Games, which replaced Starship Enterprises (or possibly yet another comic shop) in 1984. Starship Enterprises was the diametric opposite of Arnold’s. Whereas Arnold shoved his new comics into old wire racks at the front of his store and let other comics fade in the sun that streamed in through his bay window, the owner of Starship Enterprises (a neatnik hippy with a carefully coiffed ponytail) arranged his new comics in a handbuilt, honeycomb-like wooden shrine that took up most of one wall of the long, narrow store. Whereas Arnold’s was stuffed to overflowing with stuff, Starship Enterprises always seemed to have perilously little in stock, apart from their selection of new comics. But what little they did had was carefully selected, artfully arranged, and displayed like an exhibit in a fine handicrafts museum.

I never felt all that comfortable being in Starship Enterprises. I usually felt as though I were trespassing in a private club. However, if you were looking for something in particular, it was much, much easier to find it there than it would be at Arnold’s. When I was eleven and going through a several weeks long infatuation with Jack Kirby’s rendition of the Inhuman’s Medusa (oh, that long red hair; oh, that skintight purple jumpsuit…), I went looking for my back issues of Marvel’s Greatest Comics at Starship Enterprises, not in the various boxes lying all over the floor at Arnold’s.

The store had a tiny selection of used paperbacks, but what they had was choice. Unlike Arnold, who didn’t seem to care what sort of condition the books he bought were in, the small selection of books at Starship Enterprises was invariably mint and handsomely vintage. They always had a nice batch of old Ballantine paperbacks on hand. My best finds were several editions of Frederik Pohl’s pioneering original science fiction anthologies of the 1950s, Star Science Fiction. Still have ’em.

a thing of beauty

The Walden’s Books at the 163rd Street Shopping Center: If Arnold’s was my main source of used books, this was my primary source of new books. It was where I’d drag my parents every Hanukkah and every birthday to point out the presents I wanted. It also happened to be the place I fell in love for the first time.

Walden’s Books was a terrific source for inexpensive illustrated books of all kinds. My local store’s sale tables (the 163rd Street Shopping Center was only a twelve block bike ride from my house, even closer than Arnold’s) were piled high with publishers’ close-outs on all sorts of subjects beloved by young boys: battleships, submarines, airplanes, tanks, World War 2, the Civil War, dinosaurs, dragons, astrology, muscle cars, trains, horror movies… and science fiction. Oh, they carried some wonderful illustrated tomes on science fiction.

another thing of beauty

I already mentioned buying The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction at Walden’s, which quickly became my SF bible. They also carried both of David Kyle’s gorgeous volumes on the artwork, writers, and themes of the prior hundred years’ worth of science fiction, A Pictorial History of Science Fiction and The Illustrated Book of Science Fiction Ideas and Dreams. Both books were chock full of reproductions of lurid pulp covers, particularly from the Gernsback magazines, Amazing Stories, Science Wonder Stories, and Air Wonder Stories. Even more fascinating to me were the illustrations from the popular magazines of an even earlier time, the Victorian and Edwarian decades, with their super-battleships, flying battleships, and bizarre, pre-Wright Brothers winged contraptions of all sorts.

As an adult, I got to meet David Kyle at a convention after he presented a slide show taken from his two books. I told him how much the first book had meant to me (I received the first one from my mother as a twelfth birthday present; but the second book I didn’t get around to buying until after talking with David, when I found it on eBay). He told me they had been works of love, and his one regret had been that their cover color schemes and fonts had been so similar to each other that many potential buyers ended up mistaking the second book for the first and never picking up Science Fiction Ideas and Dreams. I may have made the same mistake myself as a young man. One of my favorite features of David’s first book was its division of various decades in the development of science fiction into “ages”: the Iron Age, the Steel Age, the Silver Age, the Golden Age, the Plastic Age, etc. His fun dedications page gave shout-outs to many of my favorite fictional characters, including Lessa from Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight.

I fell in love with two Anne M’s at that Walden’s Books. The first was Anne McCaffrey. I bought the first five Dragonriders of Pern books there, including The White Dragon in hardback, a splurge. I formed an Anne McCaffrey fan club and sent letters to her in Ireland (she always answered me, and this in the days before email). The second Anne M was named Annie Marsh. She was a sales clerk at the bookstore. I thought she looked like a young Jane Seymour. I was smitten from the first moment I talked with her. Twelve years old, I acted like a big-shot, know-it-all science fiction fan that first afternoon; I tried horning in on recommendations Annie was attempting to give to some teenaged customers in the science fiction and fantasy section, showing her and them how smart and well-read I was.

Annie was a regal nineteen, seven years older than I was. Within a day or two of meeting her, she was all I could think about. I found excuses to make trips to Walden’s Books every opportunity I could. Sometimes she’d let me sit in the stock room and office in the back with her and talk, or I’d just watch her work. When I couldn’t think of an excuse to go inside the store, or if I’d seen her too recently and it might weird her out to go see her again, so soon, I’d pedal my bike to the mall and park myself in a corner near the edge of the store’s display window, where I could watch the sales counter. I’d wait for her to come out of the office and help someone at the counter. I’d just look at her, drink in the sight of her, pray she didn’t spot me standing outside, and estimate the next time it would be kind of socially acceptable to talk with her again.

I carried a torch for Annie all through junior high school, from the time I was twelve to the time I was fourteen. Then she told me she would have to quit her job at the store because she would be attending college out of town. Either she gave me her home phone number or I looked it up, because I remember talking with her parents at least a couple of times after she stopped working at Walden’s Books. The last time I spoke with them, they told me she was engaged to be married. I’d known all along that I didn’t have a chance with her, of course. But my heart still broke, very painfully.

Strange to think she’s fifty-three now, possibly a grandmother.

The Future of Bookstores

Octavia Books in New Orleans

The death of Borders Books (and let’s not forget the associated death of subsidiary WaldenBooks, once a huge force in book retailing) has many people prognosticating about the future of physical bookstores. As a writer, a reader, and a lifelong aficionado of bookstores, I’d like to jump into the conversation.

An old, if somewhat inaccurate, adage tells us that the Chinese word for “crisis” is made up of two characters, one representing “danger” and the other “opportunity.” The “danger” part of the dissolution of Borders is clear enough. Nearly 11,000 people employed by Borders Books and WaldenBooks will lose their jobs. An unknown number of publishing employees whose sole or primary responsibility has been to take care of the Borders account will also lose their jobs. For writers and their readers, the danger is that the loss of so much retail shelf space is going to slash the numbers of titles which are green-lit by publishers, as explained in an article from National Public Radio called “Bye Bye Borders: What the Chain’s Closing Means for Bookstores, Authors, and You“:

“Kathleen Schmidt, a book publicist, provided this perfectly concise explanation on Twitter: ‘Here is how the Borders closing will impact publishers: Say you have a bestselling author and you usually do a 1st printing of 100K books. Out of that 1st print of 100K, B&N/Amazon would take a large quantity, then Target, maybe Costco/BJs/Walmart, then Borders, then indies. If you’re an author with a 1st print of 30K (a lot), you prob don’t have price clubs or Target. You have B&N, Amazon, Borders, and indies. Now, take Borders OUT of that 1st print equation. Also consider that B&N is conservative with numbers these days. That 30K turns into 15K.'”

For the major publishers, 15K of anticipated sales is the borderline between green-lighting a trade paperback novel and rejecting the author’s manuscript. The likeliest outcome of the disappearance of all those shelves at Borders is that fewer projects will get past the Profits and Loss Departments of the Big Six publishing houses. Some of the slack may be taken up by smaller, independent publishing firms, but they will be affected by the loss of retail shelf space, too. Their “go/no go” borderline may be 3K sales, rather than 15K sales, but they are still faced with the same arithmetic. The departure of Borders will hasten the exodus of many lower-selling writers from traditional print to e-book originals and print-on-demand.

Any shift away from printed books to e-books would seem to be certain to hurt the surviving physical bookstores (although many independent bookstores now make it possible for their customers to order Google Books through them). Independent booksellers have experienced a modest resurgence in recent years; after fifteen years of steady decline, the American Booksellers Association, the trade group of independent bookstores, reported a 7% increase in the number of member stores in the past year. However, some independent bookstores which have managed to survive thus far in the shadows of Borders may actually be swamped by the wake of Borders’ sinking:

“‘What troubles me,’ says Susan Novotny, owner of Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany and Market Block Books in Troy, N.Y., ‘is having them [Borders] in a constant state of giving away books.’ She worries about ‘a hang-over effect’ from customers who are booked out.”

So there we have the “danger” part of “crisis.” What about the “opportunity” part?

I believe physical bookstores provide a vital element of what sociologist refer to as “the third space.” The first space is the home, the second is the workplace, and the third space is, like the classic French cafe or the English pub or (in the 1950s and 1960s) the American bowling alley, the place where people go to spend their leisure time among other people. One thing that the expansion of Borders (and Barnes and Noble and Books-a-Million) did over the past twenty-five years was to give a taste of bookstores-as-third-space to millions of people who previously had no bookstores to call their own. Prior to the mid-1980s, hundreds of metropolitan areas, either small cities or the suburbs and exurbs of big cities, had no access to a local bookstore of any type (aside from maybe a used paperback exchange kind of place). But the megastores gave the residents of those areas their own local bookstore, a place to hang out that didn’t involve alcohol, a place to meet friends for coffee or sit in the cafe area and peruse a magazine or a new book. For many people, their local Borders or Barnes and Nobles came to serve as a kind of community center, or that special kind of place where you can go to be alone, but among other people. Many independent bookstores offer these same amenities and may even do them better, but the megastores planted themselves in many places where no independent bookstores had gone. When 400 Borders stores close down, that is going to leave a void in a lot of people’s lives, a void that can’t be readily filled by bars or restaurants. The Borders store closing in Scranton, Pennsylvania is the last bookstore in the entire city; the smaller chain bookstores located in malls closed in the mid-2000s, along with two independents.  Bookstore regulars in Scranton fear they will have nowhere else to go.

Where enough demand exists, entrepreneurs find ways to meet those demands. Joseph Robertson is bullish on the future of independent bookstores. His recent article, “Borders Closure is Green Light for Bookstore Innovation,” lists four innovations which may help new (or newly revitalized) independent bookstores to thrive in many markets:

The true cafe/bookstore: A more balanced relationship between the bookstore and cafe sections of a retail space, with high quality coffee, with events and music, gatherings and opportunities to sit down with authors, and a bookstore that echoes this quality with content.

The information oasis: Bookstores can reposition themselves as trusted sources of information, stocking quality publications, some new to newcomers, and unique titles with real depth and scope, understood by intelligent, engaged buyers and salespeople. Mainstream media may be an echo-chamber, but bookstores can be places where the individual is free to think for herself.

The genius bar: One of the reasons Apple’s stores are popular with Mac lovers is that they provide information and knowledge that is useful; customers can learn from staff. Bookstores could make sure to be a source of guidance to the reading public, taking back that role from distributors and advertisers and being more pro-active about deciding what they stock.

The cyber-paper crossover: Barnes and Noble, BN.com and the Nook, have made for an impressive collaboration. Small bookstores can take Borders’ market share, collectively, if they learn the lesson Borders missed: assist your readers in all media, and they will stand by you. Wifi is useful, but dedicated new-fangle web access, whatever that looks like, could help bricks-and-mortar independents sell print books.”

I would add a few suggestions to Robertson’s list:

The child-friendly bookstore: Borders was actually fairly strong in this regard with their designated children’s play and reading area and their Saturday afternoon story hours and activities for children. We parents are always looking for good indoor activities for our kids, perfect for those times when you just have to get them out of the house but inclement weather prevents you from taking them to a park or a playground. My local Borders stores were always very welcoming to my kids, and on days when they catered to children, crowds in the stores were healthy. I think one way in which Borders got themselves into trouble was their selection of locations. A good number of their stores were in areas which commanded extremely high rents. The stores may have succeeded in attracting a steady flow of customers, browsers, and folks who brought their kids for events, but their overhead was so stratospherically high that they suffered losses year after year. Corporate leaders were seeking status locations, locations which would allow them to build the Borders brand as upscale and somewhat exclusive, but the items their stores sold weren’t high margin enough to pay the rents. Independent bookstores typically don’t have owners who are slaves to prestige. Owners of non-corporate bookstores are often cannier about their locations than their corporate counterparts and are free to select locations in underutilized, lower-status retail areas which, although commanding much lower rents, may have unique advantages particular to a given neighborhood (nearness of restaurants or other centers of social activity; located in an area being gentrified by artists; etc.), advantages not so visible to an owner who doesn’t live in the community.

The rebirth of the newsstand: Mitchell Kaplan, owner of the local Books and Books chain of stores in South Florida, is pioneering this idea. He started with his original store in Coral Gables, a traditional full-service independent bookstore, but several of his other locations are very different. His notion was to replicate the magazines and cafe sections of Borders or Barnes and Noble but in a smaller, more intimate size, appropriate for tight spots in areas with high levels of foot traffic, such as South Beach or the Bal Harbour Shops. The wide variety of magazines gives Kaplan’s spinoffs a leg up on Starbucks or other corporate coffee houses and makes his locations much more of a destination for couples out on a date or individuals looking to spend a pleasant hour or two. A carefully and intelligently curated small selection of books would also add to the allure of a newsstand/coffee bar. Books were once widely available at newsstands. I think they should be again.

The center for writer-reader interaction and reader-reader interaction: My favorite independent bookstore in New Orleans, Octavia Books, is very good at this. Owner Tom Lowenberg swam against the tide and opened his store a little more than a decade ago, when hundreds of independent bookstores were dying off each year. He has built an extremely loyal customer base by making Octavia Books a headquarters for readers’ encounters with writers and readers’ encounters with each other. In addition to hosting five or six author events each week, Tom also makes his store available to a wide variety of reading groups, providing them complimentary refreshments and a familiar, friendly face.

Bookstores of the future may need to become more like microbreweries, focusing on their uniqueness, their sense of their region and neighborhood, and their owners’ personalities. More and more books may be consumed in the form of pixels, rather than ink on paper. But I believe physical bookstores will continue to exist and thrive as a vital and beloved “third space.”

Buying Books in the 1970s, pt. 2

the book that launched my search for a thousand other books

This is the second part of my mini-memoir of buying books as a kid in the 1970s in North Miami and North Miami Beach (to go to part one, click here). With the immanent closure of 400 Borders Books stores, which will change the book buying habits of tens of thousands of readers around the country, I felt like a little memory journey to the bookstores and newsstands of my childhood might be in order.

In yesterday’s post, I described the motley collection of places I bought some of my earliest science fiction books and books about science fiction — a Burdine’s Department Store, a cigar shop, a newsstand, and an independent bookstore. In today’s post, I’ll talk about a place where I went hog wild, where I spent the bulk of my weekly allowance, and where I blew goodly chunks of my bar mitvah gift money. What follows are the places where I went from being a reader of science fiction to a science fiction fan — as in fanatic.

A&M Comics and Books: If there was a geographical center to my childhood (apart from my bedroom), this was it. I probably made more trips to A&M, or Arnold’s, as I called it (that’s what the A stood for, the owner’s first name; the M stood for the name of his wife, I believe) than I did to all my other bookstores and comic shops combined. The place opened in 1974, when I was nine, at the corner of South Dixie Highway and 12th Avenue, about a thirteen block bike ride from my house. It’s still in business (although relocated to Bird Road in Miami and now run by a guy named Jorge, who hired on with Arnold around the time I graduated high school in 1982) and claims to be the second oldest continuously operating comic book store in America. Arnold, a retiree from New Jersey, was the owner-operator, a crusty, irritable, Sam Moskowitz-kind of guy who decided to run a comics shop and used bookstore as a second career. The comics were displayed on freestanding wire racks at the front of the store. The other four-fifths of the place were taken up by a barely organized menage of used books, a good portion of them science fiction paperbacks. Arnold wasn’t into neat, nor was he into mint; his stock was stacked haphazardly on shelves, the tops of chairs, in boxes, on stools, and on the floor, and many of his books were on the ratty side. On the other hand, he made up for those possible foibles with quantity. Arnold always had a lot of books, and he bought more all the time. Finding something good within that huge mess was a good part of the fun. You could never search for something specific; you had to stumble across your treasure. And you generally did.

I can’t recall whether my father found Arnold’s first or whether I did. In either case, we soon fell into the habit of stopping by there on Sundays so I could spend my allowance. As a nine year-old, I received one dollar a week allowance. That year, Marvel comics (unless they were Annuals) retailed for twenty cents. Thus, I could theoretically buy five comics a week, assuming I could scrape up four extra pennies for tax. Usually my father would spot me the extra four cents, saying it was an advance on next week’s allowance. But he always forgot by the time the next week rolled around. So five comics a week it was, and what a treat. Marvel had started publishing lots of books with horror heroes, like Tomb of Dracula, Man-Thing, Werewolf by Night (I had a subscription to that one), and Ghost Rider. I bought them all, plus my favorite superhero books, Fantastic Four, Avengers, Iron Man, and Marvel Triple Action (the early adventures of the Avengers, reprinted). Every week, my father would ask me the same question: “Andy, are you sure you want to spend your entire allowance on comic books?” And every week, I’d reply with a polite version of, “Hell, yeah!

At first, I never ventured beyond the comics racks, especially not when my father was with me (he wanted me to make my selections fast so we could get out of the dusty, overly warm, and poorly ventilated store). But I soon started visiting Arnold’s on my own, either on Saturdays or after school, riding my bike down 12th Avenue. On those more leisurely visits, I began exploring the other four-fifths of the place. And I quickly discovered that some of those old paperbacks were really cool. So I gradually transitioned from spending my entire weekly allowance on comics to spending most of it on comics and some on books, to splitting it fifty-fifty, and then to spending the majority of it on used paperbacks. The turning point came shortly after my bar mitzvah, when I used some of my Walden’s gift certificates for a copy of the new reference book, The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited by Brian Ash. (That I bought at the Walden’s Books in the 163rd Street Shopping Center, a store I’ll have to save for tomorrow’s installment.) This was the book that forever changed me from being a casual reader of science fiction to a determined, driven, systematic reader of science fiction. The book that made me a fan.

The Visual Encyclopedia, quite simply, blew my mind. It was the Internet before there was an Internet. It featured an illustrated chronology of all the seminal stories and books in science fiction, chapters on enduring themes in the literature, and highly detailed archival articles on subjects like the Hugo Awards and fandom and the history of the magazines. It had a fabulous index that let you track mentions of your favorite writers or books from themed chapter to themed chapter. I spent hours and hours pouring through that book. I could read the chapters and articles dozens of times, getting something different out of them each time. Of course, I began compiling my dream reading list, drawn from forty-five years’ worth of magazines and novels and anthologies.

I found a good portion of my dream reading list on the shelves or in the piles at Arnold’s. Every visit became a treasure hunt. I found A. E. van Vogt, Robert Silverberg, Edmund Hamilton, Leigh Brackett, Ursula K. Le Guin, J. G. Ballard, Barry N. Malzberg, Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, and Anne McCaffrey. I stumbled on names and books I’d never heard of, which I’d then look up in the Visual Encyclopedia as soon as I’d pedaled home. So long as the Encyclopedia gave its seal of approval, I went back the next day or the day after and bought the book.

I became more than just a regular at Arnold’s. I was virtually a resident. Arnold and I developed a sort of love-hate relationship, or at least he developed one with me. I’m sure he didn’t mind that I was spending a good bit of money in his store, but he never seemed to enjoy my company. Maybe he didn’t enjoy anybody’s company. I don’t remember any of our conversations, but I’m sure at least some went like this:

Arnold: Don’t you have any other place you need to be?
Me: Not really. . .
Arnold: I mean, don’t you have after-school activities, or something?
Me: I ride my bike over here. It’s exercise.
Arnold: Don’t you have any friends?
Me: I see them at school.
Arnold: How come you’re always in here?
Me: I like it in here.
Arnold: Don’t you have any other place you need to be?

That place imprinted itself on me. If I could print out a map of my mind, it would look a lot like the interior of Arnold’s. I still don’t feel entirely comfortable in a home unless I have some clutter around me. Preferably clutter with books mixed in.

Arnold, you old, balding curmudgeon, rest in peace in that Big Used Bookstore in the Sky.

Yipes! I’ve already posted almost 1400 words, just on A&M Comics and Books. Looks like I won’t get around to Starship Enterprises and Walden’s Books and my first, unrequited love in this post. I’ll save them for part three (which can be found by clicking here).

Buying Books in the 1970s

a fondly remembered early purchase from Burdine's Department Store

I’ve been thinking a lot about changes in the world of books. My recent post, “The Death of Science Fiction, 1960 and Today,” talks about the current turmoil in the publishing and bookselling industry (i.e.: the liquidation of Borders), the transmogrification of the distribution system for books, and how the ebook original currently has much the same profile as the paperback original did back in 1960, when Earl Kemp published his memorable monograph, Who Killed Science Fiction?

All the cogitating has me looking back wistfully at my earliest book buying experiences, when I was just a young ‘un. My formative reading years, my own personal Golden Age of Science Fiction, pretty much extended from 1971, when I was seven, to 1982, the year I graduated high school. These were years when the paperback original was the undisputed king of science fiction prose formats, but well before the book superstores, the Barnes and Nobles and Borders and Books-a-Millions, had proliferated. I grew up in North Miami Beach, Florida, not then a hot spot for independent bookstores (although there were a few around, particularly in more bohemian neighborhoods like Coconut Grove).

So where did I buy my books? (I bought many, many of them.) I’d like to take a little journey down Memory Lane, if only to educate my three young boys on their father’s early years.

(Me: Yeah, boys, when your daddy was a kid, I used to buy my paperback books at an itty-bitty newsstand that was twenty-five miles from my house, and I had to walk uphill through driving snow both ways–

Asher: But Daddy, didn’t you grow up in Miami?

Me: Uh, yeah. . . well, when I was a kid, I used to buy my paperback books at an itty-bitty newsstand twenty-five miles from my house, and I had to walk through hurricane-force WINDS both ways. . .)

Burdine’s Department Store: Burdine’s was one of four anchoring department stores at the 163rd Street Shopping Center in North Miami Beach (the other three were Richard’s, Jordan Marsh, and J.C. Penny). Burdine’s was the fanciest of the four, sort of our local Macy’s; it had a nice restaurant on the top floor, a linen-napkin kinda place, where my Grandmother Irene used to take me for special lunches. Back in them old days of the 1970s, upscale department stores had many more departments than just men’s clothing, women’s clothing, children’s clothing, home furnishings, and electronics. Some, like Burdine’s, had a books department. I don’t remember their department carrying any hardback books; or, if they did, it was only very few. What they did have was five or six rows of long, long metal racks of mass market paperbacks (referred to as pocket books, back then). They carried quite a few science fiction paperbacks, UFO and occult-related paperbacks, and true crime books.

I spent many pleasant interludes reading the back covers of paperbacks there while my mother or grandmother shopped in other departments. I remember as a ten year-old being pleasantly mystified by the cover illustrations and back cover descriptions on the Carlos Castaneda books, The Teachings of Don Juan, etc. These were labeled Non-fiction. Were the stories true? Were sorcerers real? My favorite Burdine’s purchase was the collection Science Fiction Terror Tales, edited by Groff Conklin, which I probably begged my dad to buy for me in 1970 or 1971 (it was published in 1969). The story I gravitated to most strongly was “Nightmare Brother” by Alan E. Nourse (reprinted from the February, 1953 issue of Astounding). But what really hooked me was the cover illustration: an injured hand clawing the book’s cover, a hand with a single, staring eyeball protruding from its back and trailing broken cyborg wires. Hard to top that when you’re seven years old.

Some Cigar Shop on Biscayne Boulevard: I can’t recall the name of this place. It was located on Biscayne Boulevard in North Miami, in the same shopping strip as the very popular Pumperniks Delicatessen (a favorite of the great Robert Sheckley’s, whenever he was in the area). The cigar shop was small and narrow. When you walked in, the right side of the store was taken up with glass counters and cabinets displaying a multitude of colorful cigar boxes. The left side of the store was given over to wall racks of paperback books. My father used to take me in there. The one book I remember him buying for me there was a significant one — my first collection of Ray Bradbury stories, A Medicine for Melancholy. I needed a book to take with me on the bus going from North Miami Beach down U.S. 1 to Sea Camp in the upper Keys. I was in fifth grade; this was my first sleep-away camp experience (and I got stung by jellyfish). I picked the book because the montage of images on its cover featured a little Brontosaurus. Reading the book on the bus trip led me to fall in love with Ray Bradbury, who became my “entry drug” to SF and fantasy short fiction.

hot stuff for an 11 year-old; and an enduring classic

Worldwide News and Books: This place was a treasure trove. It was a huge newsstand in a modest strip of shops on 163rd Street in North Miami Beach, near N.E. 16th Avenue, within reasonable bicycling distance from my house. Aside from newspapers from all over the nation and many other countries, they also carried a gigantic stock of paperbacks, with an excellent selection of science fiction. I first encountered a new type of book there, trade paperbacks. At the time, I didn’t know that’s what they were called; I thought of them as “big paperbacks.” Some of the most exciting and enticing trade paperbacks I mooned over included Michael Ashley’s History of the Science Fiction Magazines series (volume one covered 1926-1935 and volume two covered 1936-1945; he’s now up to 1970) and Charles Platt’s marvelous and eye-opening SF:Rediscovery series, which introduced me to many classic works I otherwise would have overlooked. Foremost among these was Robert Silverberg’s magisterial Nightwings. I may have first picked it up because of the very pretty and very naked winged lady on the cover (I believe I was eleven at the time and so may be excused for my prurient interest). But I reread it again and again because it was a masterpiece of imagination and characterization. It remains one of my favorite novels (and I still have my original copy, lovely pastel boobies and all).

The Arts and Sciences Bookstore: This was a stuffy place. Both stuffy because its aisles were narrow, dim, dusty, and claustrophobia-inducing, and because it took its name very seriously. One of north Dade County’s only independent, full service bookstores, it was located on 125th Street, a modest storefront in the middle of North Miami’s original shopping district. I recall that most of their stock was scholarly; they didn’t have much popular fiction. I think popular fiction may have given the owner hives. What they did have, however, was literary criticism, and their stock occasionally included the odd volume on science fiction. I’m pretty sure I bought my copy of James Gunn’s Alternate Worlds: the Illustrated History of Science Fiction here. I’m positive I found my treasured copy of The Science Fiction of Mark Clifton, edited by Clifton’s biggest fan, Barry N. Malzberg (along with Martin H. Greenberg), here.

More to come tomorrow, including A&M Comics and Books, Starship Enterprises, the Walden’s Books at the 163rd Street Shopping Center, and my first, unrequited love!

continue to part two

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