Technology, Curation And Why The Era Of Big Bookstores Is Coming To An End

This post, by Mike Shatzkin, originally appeared on his The Shatzkin Files blog on the Idea Logical Company site on 6/7/11.

I stumbled across a Sarah Weinman post from a few months ago that posits the notion that the chain bookstore (by which it would appear she means the superstores of the past 20 years, not the chain bookstores in malls that grew up in the prior 20 years) perhaps had a natural life cycle which is now coming to an end. She points out that the investment by Wall Street in the concept of massive destination bookstores enabled their creation, but ultimately resulted in great excess: too many stores with too many square feet to fill and too many books in them that don’t sell.

This is a really good and thoughtful post and I think the observation that the availability of capital built the excess which is now partly responsible for dragging down the structure is correct. But it triggered some additional thoughts that make me want to again trace the history (which I believe has called for smaller bookstores for several years) from before the 1990s when Sarah’s post picks it up and to look at bookstore history through the lens of tech development, which I think both enabled the massive bookstores and is now bringing about their demise.

The core challenge of bookselling — in the past, present, and future, online and in stores, for printed books or digital ones — is curation. How does the bookseller help the reader sort through all of the possible reading choices, of which there are, literally, millions, to find the reader’s next purchase?

In a shop, that curation begins with with what the store management puts on the shop shelves. The overwheming majority of customers in a brick bookstore who buy something choose from what is in the store.

The second line of curation in a shop is in the details of the shelving itself. Is the book face out or spined? Is it at eye-level or ankle-level? Is it on a front table in a stack? Is it displayed in more than one section of the store, which would increase the likelihood it will be seen?

And the third line of curation in a brick bookstore is what the sales personnel know and tell the customers.

In the period right after World War II, there was virtually no technology to help booksellers with curation at all. Sales reps would call (or not) and show catalogs of forthcoming books from which the bookseller would order. There were hundreds of publishers any full-line bookstore would have to do business with. But there weren’t very many full-line bookstores then. Departments stores and small regional chains (Burrows Brothers in Cleveland, Kroch’s & Brentano’s in Chicago) were the principal accounts.

Frankly, what was stocked in most stores then had a huge randomness component. This was the world my father, Leonard Shazkin, encountered when he became Director of Research at Doubleday in 1954 and, a few years later, created the Doubleday Merchandising Plan. By offering the service of tracking the sales in stores, using reps to take physical inventories in the days before computers could track it, Doubleday took the order book out of the bookstore’s hands for the reordering of Doubleday backlist titles. That solved the problem of breaching the first line of curation. And the reps, now freed of the enormously time-consuming task of selling the buyer on backlist reorders title by title, had more time to affect the second and third lines of curation: the display of the books in the stores and the knowledge the store personnel had about Doubleday books. Sales of Doubleday books exploded, approximately quadrupling for the backlist.
 

Read the rest of the post on Mike Shatzkin‘s The Shatzkin Files blog. Related: see April L. Hamilton’s post, Big Chain Bookstore Deathwatch, in which she predicted the eventual failure of most big, chain bookstores back in June of 2008.

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