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BUSINESSES ARE NOT CHARITIES AND THE LETTER sent from the Brazos Bookstore on December 9 was not a plea for donations. But it was a plea nonetheless.
In 1974 Karl Kilian founded the store in a small storefront on Bissonnet in central Houston. Since then he has done well enough as a small, independent local business and has become an institution in the literary life of the city. Over the years, he has sponsored numerous readings at the store, held benefits for writers and schools, supported the Texas Institute of Letters, and generally done whatever he can to help literature, writing, and writers in Houston. With more than twenty successful years behind him, it shocked him late in 1995 when he finally admitted to himself that he would have to consider closing the store. He was losing customers to a species of invader familiar to the owners of most small businesses—the national retail chain.
The best-known and most successful invader is, of course, Wal-Mart, but there is hardly any kind of store that does not face competition from a national chain, whether it’s auto parts or furniture or camping equipment or records and CDs or video rentals. Customers may appreciate the personal service and local atmosphere of an independent store, but they appreciate the selection, long business hours, and discounts offered by the chains even more. It is the rare local proprietor who can compete head-to-head with the pricing, advertising budgets, and marketing savvy of the invading chains.
This phenomenon has been around for generations. Think, for instance, of Sears. What’s new today is the growth of chains selling products, such as books, that traditionally seemed to be in the marketplace but somehow above it too. In the case of the Brazos Bookstore, the first invader was named Bookstop, which opened a large discount store in 1984 on Shepherd Street not far from Kilian’s store. Bookstop was then a Texas chain, but it was bought by Barnes and Noble, which in turn has opened four stores in Houston, starting in 1994. A competing chain, Borders, also opened in Houston in 1994, and finally there’s Media Play, which sells videotapes, CDs, and electronic games as well as books, all at a discount.
When Kilian opened the Brazos Bookstore in March 1974, there were no big stores discounting books. Instead there were a number of small- to medium-sized independent stores, such as Cobler’s, the Book Den, Sam Houston Book Shop, and others. These have all closed now, but at the time, they were essentially neighborhood stores drawing their customers from their immediate surroundings. Kilian’s stock at opening was a mix of books with a depth in the humanities and visual arts that was then unavailable in Houston. His was a “backlist bookstore,” one whose main business came not so much from current best-sellers but from classics and other worthy books that stay in print year after year.
For a year Kilian was both the owner and the only full-time employee. He opened the store, swept it out, ordered stock, and ran the cash register, which at the time was a cigar box. During that first summer, business was so slow that he was able to read both War and Peace and all 3,500 pages of Remembrance of Things Past as he sat waiting for customers. But by the fall, when local universities opened again for classes, sales improved, and he has made a profit every year since—until recently. If he has another year or two like 1995, he will have to close.
That is why he sent the letter to his customers last December. “We’ve struggled to hold our own,” he wrote, “but have not been able to stem the erosion of our share of the market. . . . In many ways, America’s independent bookstores have become like museums, orchestras, public radio and television: vestiges of another way of doing things that is admired but under supported. . . . It seems dishonorable to quietly close Houston’s surviving literary bookshop without first informing you—who, I think, care about such things—that we’re in trouble. . . . I hope that this holiday season you’ll give us such support as you can.”
The chains are able to offer deep discounts to customers because they buy in such volume that publishers give bigger discounts to the chains than to stores with smaller accounts. The independents’ problem is further complicated since the chains have more weapons than discounting to bring to the battle. They sell display space in their stores to publishers, a nice source of income. And the publishers subsidize—or pay for entirely—the chains’ advertisements in local and national media. The American Booksellers Association has a pending lawsuit against several publishers for such practices, claiming that the difference in discounts and advertising subsidies gives the chains unfair advantages in the marketplace and leaves the independents unable to compete. All this leaves Kilian, if not bitter, then something close to it.
And in fact he runs a very good bookstore. It’s surprisingly roomy—the better for the audience at readings—and there are a lot of good books nicely displayed and logically arranged so it’s easy to find what you want. It’s almost impossible to find a book that isn’t worthwhile there. The sell is quiet almost to the point of nonexistence. The colors are muted. There are no posters or boxed displays, and the staff are real experts and able to help even demanding readers. I believe in the store, believe in what it has done and what it stands for. Its closing would be a loss, a loss similar to that which comes with the passing of a true pioneer. But I find myself unable to resist completely the gravitational pull of the chains, and not just because of price.
I remember quite vividly walking into Barnes and Noble in Austin for the first time, seeing the paneled shelves stretching out before my eyes, smelling the coffee brewing in the cafe, seeing the many chairs and the thick carpet and the crowd of people browsing among the aisles, and I thought to myself, “Yes!” For a university town, Austin had always suffered from the lack of any decent bookstore. Bookstop did a credible job filling the gap, but this was clearly something else again. In places like El Paso and Amarillo, Barnes and Noble stores have instantly become a valuable and valued cultural institution (see page 22), and it’s impossible to imagine that such grand bookstores would ever have come to such places except as part of a chain.
Kilian stopped serving coffee at the Brazos Bookstore years ago when a customer spilled a cup on some expensive art books and ruined them. I see his point, but I still find the notion of a bookstore as a community center really appealing. Why shouldn’t a bookstore be a destination, a place for a cup of coffee after a movie, a place to browse magazines in a comfortable chair, a place for writers to read from their works and for actors and singers and storytellers to perform? To me, such a place seems the perfect answer to the clearly wrongheaded talk that the written word is dead, killed off by television and the computer. The chains figured out that there were a lot of customers who liked to spend a lot of time just being around books.
The biggest danger the chains represent is uniformity. Books in each chain store are somewhat different, as the local management can make allowances for regional tastes and interests; but for the most part, the stock is the same from store to store. The buyers for the chains thus would seem to have tremendous power over what America reads and doesn’t read. It might become hard for unknown writers to come to public attention. Even such perennial best-selling authors as Stephen King and Anne Rice were once cult authors whose readership grew because independent store owners read their books, liked them, and recommended them to their customers. King and Rice are loyal to independent stores as a result. I happened to drive past the Brazos Bookstore one night last fall and saw a line of people, many of them in costume, more than a block long waiting to get in. Anne Rice was inside signing books. Just as troubling is the possibility of censorship. Blockbuster is constantly patting itself on the back for not carrying movies it deems too sexually explicit, a kind of sanctimony I find offensive. Theoretically, the book chains could do something similar if the CEO were to decide he was opposed to a certain kind of book or thinking. But surely that would only be a boon to the independent bookstores, just as Blockbuster’s censorship has been a boon to independent video stores. Which assumes, of course, that there will be any independent stores left.
Clearly, the best possible world would have both chains and independents, not only in books but in all kinds of retail. But how are the independents to survive? The chains have been very clever in challenging the independents at their own game by sponsoring readings and getting involved in local artistic and educational causes. Perhaps the independents should fight fire with fire by doing what they can to become a destination—an event, even—rather than just a store. I confess I do not know exactly how to do this. At this late date, putting in a coffee machine would probably only emphasize the problem rather than solve it. Perhaps some alliances with different but similarly threatened stores or even with a movie theater. In the meantime, I’ll spend my money at both and keep my fingers crossed.